“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.
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.”