One tenth of one percent of anything





“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

          Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

We really like to believe we have got it all figured out.  We feel that we know most everything.  Ask anybody on the street and they can tell you exactly how the world works.  We are sure of our place in it.  We have it all figured out, just like they taught us in school.


In Shakespeare’s most profound play there are several singular and remarkable statements about who we are and exactly how much we really know.  Horatio and Hamlet are students at the University of Wittenberg, at least before certain troubles called them home.  Horatio studies science – what they called in those days “natural philosophy”.  Like all good students of science, he believes that the universe is well understood and we know our place in it.  Hamlet is not so certain; you can almost hear his sarcasm as he tells his friend (in modern terms) “Your science doesn’t begin to understand the universe”.  The bard puts it more memorably, of course. 


In Shakespeare’s time, or Hamlet’s, the future was unimaginable.  Life and technology was not very different from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  There was not even the expectation that change was possible.  But a revolution was lurking, because “natural philosophers” (scientists) were finding out that just a little more about how the universe works. 


Copernicus and Kepler built on the observations of Tycho Brahe and found that we were not the center of the universe; other planets revolved around the sun, and so do we.  This improved understanding of the universe, plus maybe a falling apple, inspired Newton to formulate new laws of science.  Laws that became the basis of a technological and social revolution:  steam power and the industrial revolution.  Shakespeare, Hamlet, the ancient Greeks and Romans could not imagine steam engines, railways, and the industry of the 18th and 19th centuries.  But those changes can be directly mapped from a better understanding of the universe.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, everyone was certain, just like Horatio, that we perfectly understood our place in the cosmos and the laws that govern the universe.  But William and Caroline Herschel made astounding observations of the universe that once more changed our understanding of where we are.  We live in a galaxy of other stars; the Milky Way is not merely a glowing cloud but what we have come to call a galaxy, an island universe.  And once again, we were surprised to find that humanity is not at the center of it.  Herschel did more, discovering something we now call infrared radiation.    Nobody knew what those discoveries meant and where they would lead, or if indeed they would lead anywhere.  It took James Clerk Maxwell in a later century to discover the laws of physics that were evident only after the Herschel’s observations inspired wonder.   Newton’s laws did not explain everything, it seems.  Maxwell’s laws opened the veil of the universe a little bit more.

In the 19th century we thought we knew everything.  But radio, television, and the applications of electricity were unimaginable.  Only after Maxwell’s laws were put to work did amazing new industries that were previously inconceivable come into being.  The first American Nobel Prize winner (in Physics) Albert A. Michelson observed in 1894:  “Our future discoveries must be looked for in the 6th decimal place.”  And the director of the US Patent office famously lobbied for the dissolution of his agency since all possible practical inventions had already been discovered.

Don’t laugh at them; they have good company.  We are in that company today.

Shortly thereafter, Edwin Hubble started making observations with the new Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson and observed astounding facts.  There are other galaxies.  And we are not at the center of them.  And they are moving at incredible speeds.  Around the same time, a Swiss patent office clerk, inspired by the observations of the universe around us, postulated new physical laws.  In 1900 nobody could conceive of digital electronics, computers, and their infinite variations; these inventions were literally unimaginable.  After all we knew everything there was to know, what else could there be? 

Now, of course, we know everything about the universe.  All the laws of nature have been discovered and published by Einstein, Maxwell, and Newton.  All the possible industries have been invented.  Probably time to think about closing the patent office again.

But wait. 

Hubble’s namesake has made some very troubling observations.  Almost impossible to understand.  Observations that don’t fit with the laws of Newton, Maxwell, or even Einstein.  Not only are we not at the center of the universe, but we don’t even know what the universe is.  Turns out that all our observations, all our patient learning, has been made looking at only about 5% of the universe.  Dark matter and dark energy and something that is accelerating the motions of the galaxies are at work; 95% of the universe is both unobserved and not understood.  Some cosmologists even believe there are complete other universes in dimensions we just can’t quite see. 

Where does this go?  Who will explain it to us?  When will the next Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein appear?  Unfortunately serendipity does not arrive on a precise schedule.  Great leaps in human understanding of the universe are not predictable in their occurrence.  Genius does not punch a time clock.  But one thing is true; we have to first understand that we don’t understand.  Then someone will be inspired to figure it out.  Probably she or he is out there today, working on the equations, getting ready to publish the paper that will win the Nobel Prize.  Or it may be a century or two.  Whenever it happens, it will come because we were willing to observe, explore, question. 

What will it mean? 

Only one prediction can be made with certainty:  we have no idea.  There is no way we can predict what that next level of understanding of the universe will bring.  There is no way to imagine the industries that will result.  There is no way to imagine what our great grandchildren’s lives will be like.  No way.

Could Shakespeare and Horatio have imagined the internet? 

That is where we are. 

Why do I write about this?  Because we must keep the search for knowledge going.  Where it leads I don’t know, but every leap had lead to better lives for all mankind.  If we don’t continue to search, to observe, to explore, we will cease to innovate, cease to grow, and start to die.

As the great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison once observed:  “We don’t know one tenth of one percent of anything.”  Better keep the patent office open.

So will we fly someday to the stars?  Einstein says never.  But what does a patent office clerk know?  I’d subscribe to Robert Goddard’s sunny optimism in his valedictory address:

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.”




15 thoughts on “One tenth of one percent of anything”

  1. Really interesting and the parallel between human evolution and the evolution of science. Inevitably we are always short of the truth, we often make mistakes. Just note that there are few theories with more than five hundred years. If there. Even if one considers science “philosophy” new, there are not many theories with more than five hundred years, the most recent theories usually have a short shelf life. In one day the scientists say: “do not eat egg,” the other day say, “do not stop eating eggs.”

    Actually science, although claiming to be based on accuracy, should always be viewed as anything in life, unfortunately, with a critical sense. As you said we are all “scientists” who know exactly how everything works. Each has its argument. Some prove their thesis and many start to believe them. Unfortunately the universe seems to work more by rhetoric. What saddens me most about this story is that many hit hands on his chest full of themselves, proud, and say, “I know.” Do not know. You can even learn a little, but how life works, do not know. Experience but not quite decipher. Dies without knowing it. I believe this to be fatalistic, but if you understand life as something to be implemented, unplanned or deciphered.

    I also have my theories about how the universe works. It is included in my thesis the dependent relationship between the universe and human life. To me they are closely correlated. It all boils down to the sentiment of love, which more than one chemical reaction, is a primary spiritual impulse that makes everything exist. It’s previous life, before the matter to the cosmos. Theory crazy … I, alas, I have many crazy theories, and present these theories often without being asked. This is why none of them being popular. I think people believe in anything when am need to believe something, when applying.

    Einstein has already fulfilled much of human wills of responses. But honestly until today I did not understand what is the time beyond a measure of changes in events as well as numbers on the clock. The time really exist as “something” variable? Or is it just a measure that varies only if you measure wrong or inaccurate uses a standard? I honestly do not understand Einstein. That is, the truth is unknown. For me the time there is only a measure of changes in events, but I’ll adjust my watch because I do not want to be late in future. There in the future, everything can change.

  2. I like you, Wayne Hale. You refresh my faith in intelligence and thoughtfulness in a time when it seems there is little of that to go around. Thank you for sharing your thinking in print.

  3. To quote D Rumsfeld “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.”

  4. Thank you for this brilliant missive, Mr. Hale.

    I fear for the future of Human Space Flight.

  5. The future of NASA by its acronym

    NASA No Ares Says Administration
    NASA No Astronauts Spacing Again
    NASA Need Another Space Agency
    NASA New Angle Space Agency
    NASA Nothing About Space Again
    NASA No Amount Says Administration
    NASA No Asteroids Soon Anytime
    NASA No Apollo Steroids Anytime
    NASA Now Automotive Stopping Agency
    NASA Now Air Sampling Agency

    Well thats the end of that. Its been great watching the last 50 years of US manned space flight. Come wheels stop on STS 133 that will be it. All over.

  6. Interesting observations, Wayne. Today, we have Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist TV combined with the library computer from the starship Enterprise in our pockets. Communications skills that were once the sole province of advanced radio amateurs are now commonplace…why bother learning how radio really works to talk to an astronaut when you can Twitter them?

    You mentioned movies a few posts back…ever see “What The (Bleep) Do We Know”? It’s as good an introduction to quantum physics for the laymen as I’ve ever seen.

    Here’s another one for you…”Event Horizon”. Conceived as a space horror movie, it details the result of an early experimental FTL drive system. The following quote, edited for “colorful metaphors”, details how the ship’s FTL drive worked…

    Dr. Weir: [describing how the Event Horizon functions] The ship doesn’t really go faster than light; what it does is it creates a dimensional gateway that allows it to jump instantaneously from one point of the universe to another light years away.
    Lt. Starck, Executive Officer: How?
    Dr. Weir: [stammering] Well, that’s – that’s difficult to – it’s all math…
    Miller: Try us, Doctor.
    Dr. Weir: Right. Well, um, using layman’s terms… Use a retaining magnetic field to focus a narrow beam of gravitons – these, in turn, fold space-time consistent with Weyl tensor dynamics until the space-time curvature becomes infinitely large, and you produce a singularity. Now, the singularity…
    Miller: [interrupting] “Layman’s terms”?
    Cooper: Well, the heck with layman’s terms! Do you speak English?

    At this point in our history, humanity understands the physics of gravity as well as Marconi did radio…he had no idea how signals propagated across the ocean…that would be left to Heaviside and Kennely to determine.

    By the end of this century, which means that you and I won’t be around to see it, humans will learn how to thumb their noses at Einsteinean physics by taming gravity, and then the universe will open itself up to us…and there will be still more laws of physics to be learned. Spaceflight 101, anyone?

    Once, people thought that the Earth was the center of the universe.
    Once, people thought the Earth was flat.
    Once, people thought that speeds faster than a horse were instantly fatal.
    Once, people thought the sound barrier was inpenetrable.
    Today, people think that the speed of light is impassable.

    As a bonus, I’ll tickle your imagination with the following quote from “K-PAX”…

    Dr. Mark Powell: What if I were to tell you that according to a man who lived on our planet, named Einstein, that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light?
    Prot: I would say that you misread Einstein, Dr. Powell. May I call you Mark? You see Mark, what Einstein actually said was that nothing can accelerate to the speed of light because its mass would become infinite. Einstein said nothing about entities already traveling at the speed of light or faster.

    “…already traveling at the speed of light or faster.”

    What do we know?
    One-tenth of one percent of anything. Maybe even less.

  7. I do like P. Savio’s new NASA acronyms.

    I assume Wayne agrees we need to invent and develop to flight worthiness new technologies to fly to Mars and return safely home.

    I am of the view that once we stop flying shuttles we will truly turn our minds to technologies we need to develop to safely go to Mars. The dangers of shuttle missions consume too much of the nation’s, and other interested parties, emotional energy. It’s difficult to think straight in present circumstances.

    In 5 years we will be better prepared to decide how we will go to the Moon.

    There is much we need to work on. We need to know more about the solar system environment, we need to travel faster between planets and we need more robust means of living and working in space.

    Bigelow Aerospace is doing interesting work on in-space and on Moon and other object living space. Purdue Uni recently demonstrated an aluminium and water ice solid rocket and in-space plasma rockets are getting bigger.

    Shuttle missions tied up large numbers of the best minds and organisers in NASA and in industry. Five years of the freedom to think without the wearisome angst of shuttle flight readiness reviews should do wonders for creativity.

    Of course there are some small problems to solve too – clicking on the link to the video of President Obama’s speech leads to a tab which tells me I need a Windows Media Player plug-in to watch it. I press the link to the plug-in only to find it is a general link to Window Media Player plug-ins all of which must be paid for and no indication of which needs to be purchased. If NASA’s media department can assist cut the costs of NASA stakeholders by releasing videos in formats that can be read by standard software, we will have more resources for lobbying politicians of behalf of the space exploration program.

  8. Travel to the stars is at least theoretically possible.

    Project Daedalus, in the 1970s, considered a mission to Barnard’s Star (5.9 LY).

    In the 1980s, Project Longshot, considered a mission to Alpha Centauri (4.3 LY).

    The most critical technology for both missions was pulsed nuclear fusion, possible given our current knowlege of physics, which enabled mission durations of 50-100 years.

    Closer to home, several interstellar precursor missions have been proposed by NASA; some of which would use nuclear electric propulsion which was first tried by project Snapshot in the 1960s. These would have escaped from the sun’s gravity and entered the space between stars.

    Travel to the stars may be closer than we think.

  9. Bravo, Wayne! How very well put. I think I recall, watching a NOVA series on PBS back in the early ’90’s, Stephen Hawking summarizing the series by saying (I paraphrase) that we pretty much had the Universe wrapped up, understanding wise. I’m not a Nobel prize winner, but I thought that sounded a bit like hubris, and I hoped sincerely in my soul that it was not true.

    Or, as Douglas Adams said, in one of the Hitchhiker books (and I paraphrase again), once we’ve figured out the Universe, God goes and changes it to something even more inexplicable. I find this a much more comforting thought.


  10. The dreams of yesterday are the hopes of today. The dreams of the 1950 in fact are the realities of tomorrow. This new role of pure fundamental research was what the NACA did 60 years ago & the hypothetical 3 seat commercial crew capsules are what Soviets dreamed of at the time.

  11. Mr. Wayne.

    I would like to supplement my comment. Despite everything I said, we owe much to the scientists. Although make mistakes, although they are often those of truth, though not soon discover that things are often simple, they all do a wonderful job, splendid. What would our modern society without scientists? what would become of young scientists without inspiration of the great scientists of history, like Einstein, Newton, Copernicus. What would we be without Lavousier without Louis Pasteur? I could cite countless heroes of science. My previous comment was incomplete for failing to make clear: science stumbles, but it is what advances mankind. All scientists of today are to be congratulated for devoting their lives to improving the lives of people. I was wrong, I apologize, I hope that no brilliant scientist has discouraged with my comment. It is normal to the evolving science, and this has as a consequence often overcoming theories, but everything has extreme value. The hard work, dedication, effort and willingness of scientists should always be welcomed. In science the failure is specific, overall benefits. Forgiveness …

  12. But didn’t Einstein also say something about the universe being stranger than we can imagine?

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