Economics instruction in attachment Can We Know the Universe?  The following excerpt was published in Broca’s Brain (1979).  by Carl Sagan  “Nothing

Economics instruction in attachment Can We Know the Universe? 

The following excerpt was published in Broca’s Brain (1979). 

by Carl Sagan 


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Economics instruction in attachment Can We Know the Universe? 

The following excerpt was published in Broca’s Brain (1979). 

by Carl Sagan 

“Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature. She shows us only
surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
Its goal is to find out how the world works, to seek what regularities
there may be, to penetrate the connections of things—from subnuclear
particles, which may be the constituents of all matter, to living
organisms, the human social community, and thence to the cosmos as a
whole. Our intuition is by no means an infallible guide. Our
perceptions may be distorted by training and prejudice or merely
because of the limitations of our sense organs, which, of course,
perceive directly but a small fraction of the phenomena of the world.
Even so straightforward a question as whether in the absence of friction
a pound of lead falls faster than a gram of fluff was answered
incorrectly by Aristotle and almost everyone else before the time of
Galileo. Science is based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge
old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is.
Accordingly, science sometimes requires courage—at the very least the
courage to question the conventional wisdom.

Beyond this the main trick of science is to really think of something: the
shape of clouds and their occasional sharp bottom edges at the same
altitude everywhere in the sky; the formation of the dewdrop on a leaf;
the origin of a name or a word—Shakespeare, say, or “philanthropic”;
the reason for human social customs—the incest taboo, for example;
how it is that a lens in sunlight can make paper burn; how a “walking
stick” got to look so much like a twig; why the Moon seems to follow us
as we walk; what prevents us from digging a hole down to the center of
the Earth; what the definition is of “down” on a spherical Earth; how it

is possible for the body to convert yesterday’s lunch into today’s muscle
and sinew; or how far is up—does the universe go on forever, or if it
does not, is there any meaning to the question of what lies on the other
side? Some of these questions are pretty easy. Others, especially the
last, are mysteries to which no one even today knows the answer. They
are natural questions to ask. Every culture has posed such questions in
one way or another. Almost always the proposed answers are in the
nature of “Just So Stories,” attempted explanations divorced from
experiment, or even from careful comparative observations.

But the scientific cast of mind examines the world critically as if many
alternative worlds might exist, as if other things might be here which
are not. Then we are forced to ask why what we see is present and not
something else. Why are the Sun and the Moon and the planets
spheres? Why not pyramids, or cubes, or dodecahedra? Why not
irregular, jumbly shapes? Why so symmetrical worlds? If you spend
any time spinning hypotheses, checking to see whether they make
sense, whether they conform to what else we know, thinking of tests
you can pose to substantiate or deflate your hypotheses, you will find
yourself doing science. And as you come to practice this habit of
thought more and more you will get better and better at it. To penetrate
into the heart of the thing—even a little thing, a blade of grass, as Walt
Whitman said—is to experience a kind of exhilaration that, it may be,
only human beings of all the beings on this planet can feel. We are an
intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives
us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think
well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.

But to what extent can we really know the universe around us?
Sometimes this question is posed by people who hope the answer will
be in the negative, who are fearful of a universe in which everything
might one day be known. And sometimes we hear pronouncements
from scientists who confidently state that everything worth knowing
will soon be known—or even is already known—and who paint
pictures of a Dionysian or Polynesian age in which the zest for
intellectual discovery has withered, to be replaced by a kind of subdued
languor, the lotus eaters drinking fermented coconut milk or some
other mild hallucinogen. In addition to maligning both the Polynesians,
who were intrepid explorers (and whose brief respite in paradise is
now sadly ending), as well as the inducements to intellectual discovery

provided by some hallucinogens, this contention turns out to be
trivially mistaken.

Let us approach a much more modest question: not whether we can
know the universe or the Milky Way Galaxy or a star or a world. Can
we know, ultimately and in detail, a grain of salt? Consider one
microgram of table salt, a speck just barely large enough for someone
with keen eyesight to make out without a microscope. In that grain of
salt there are about 1016 sodium and chlorine atoms. That is a 1 followed
by 16 zeros, 10 million billion atoms. If we wish to know a grain of salt
we must know at least the three-dimensional positions of each of these
atoms. (In fact, there is much more to be known—for example, the
nature of the forces between the atoms—but we are making only a
modest calculation.) Now, is this number more or less than a number of
things which the brain can know?

How much can the brain know? There are perhaps 1011 neurons in the
brain, the circuit elements and switches that are responsible in their
electrical and chemical activity for the functioning of our minds. A
typical brain neuron has perhaps a thousand little wires, called
dendrites, which connect it with its fellows. If, as seems likely, every bit
of information in the brain corresponds to one of these connections, the
total number of things knowable by the brain is no more than 1014, one
hundred trillion. But this number is only one percent of the number of
atoms in our speck of salt.

So in this sense the universe is intractable, astonishingly immune to any
human attempt at full knowledge. We cannot on this level understand
a grain of salt, much less the universe.

But let us look a little more deeply at our microgram of salt. Salt
happens to be a crystal in which, except for defects in the structure of
the crystal lattice, the position of every sodium and chlorine atom is
predetermined. If we could shrink ourselves into this crystalline world,
we would rank upon rank of atoms in an ordered array, a regularly
alternating structure—sodium, chlorine, sodium, chlorine, specifying
the sheet of atoms we are standing on and all the sheets above us and
below us. An absolutely pure crystal of salt could have the position of
every atom specified by something like 10 bits of information. This
would not strain the information-carrying capacity of the brain.

If the universe had natural laws that governed its behavior to the same
degree of regularity that determines a crystal of salt, then, of course, the
universe would be knowable. Even if there were many such laws, each
of considerable complexity, human beings might have the capability to
understand them all. Even if such knowledge exceeded the
information-carrying capacity of the brain, we might store the
additional information outside our bodies—in books, for example, or in
computer memories—and still, in some sense, know the universe.

Human beings are, understandably, highly motivated to find
regularities, natural laws. The search for rules, the only possible way to
understand such a vast and complex universe, is called science. The
universe forces those who live in it to understand it. Those creatures
who find everyday experience a muddled jumble of events with no
predictability, no regularity, are in grave peril. The universe belongs to
those who, at least to some degree, have figured it out.

It is an astonishing fact there are laws of nature, rules that summarize
conveniently—not just qualitatively but quantitatively—how the world
works. We might imagine a universe in which there are no such laws,
in which the 1080 elementary particles that make up a universe like our
own behave with utter and uncompromising abandon. To understand
such a universe we would need a brain at least as massive as the
universe. It seems unlikely that such a universe could have life and
intelligence, because beings and brains require some degree of internal
stability and order. But even if in a much more random universe there
were such beings with an intelligence much greater than our own, there
could not be much knowledge, passion or joy.

Fortunately for us, we live in a universe that has at least important
parts that are knowable. Our common-sense experience and our
evolutionary history have prepared us to understand something of the
workaday world. When we go into other realms, however, common
sense and ordinary intuition turn out to be highly unreliable guides. It
is stunning that as we go close to the speed of light our mass increases
indefinitely, we shrink towards zero thickness in the direction of
motion, and time for us comes as near to stopping as we would like.
Many people think that this is silly, and every week or two I get a letter
from someone who complains to me about it. But it is a virtually certain
consequence not just of experiment but also of Albert Einstein’s brilliant

analysis of space and time called the Special Theory of Relativity. It
does not matter that these effects seem unreasonable to us. We are not
in the habit of traveling close to the speed of light. The testimony of our
common sense is suspect at high velocities.

Or consider an isolated molecule composed of two atoms shaped
something like a dumbbell—a molecule of salt, it might be. Such a
molecule rotates about an axis through the line connecting the two
atoms. But in the world of quantum mechanics, the realm of the very
small, not all orientations of our dumbbell molecule are possible. It
might be that the molecule could be oriented in a horizontal position,
say, or in a vertical position, but not at many angles in between. Some
rotational positions are forbidden. Forbidden by what? By the laws of
nature. The universe is built in such a way as to limit, or quantise,
rotation. We do not experience this directly in everyday life; we would
find it startling as well as awkward in sitting-up exercises, to find arms
out stretched from the sides or pointed up to the skies permitted but
many intermediate positions forbidden. We do not live in the world of
the small, on the scale of 10-13 centimeters, in the realm where there are
twelve zeros between the decimal place and the one. Our common-
sense intuitions do not count. What does count is experiment—in this
case observations from the far infrared spectra of molecules. They show
molecular rotation to be quantized.

The idea that the world places restrictions on what humans might do is
frustrating. Why shouldn’t we be able to have intermediate rotational
positions? Why can’t we travel faster than the speed of light? But so far
as we can tell, this is the way the universe is constructed. Such
prohibitions not only press us toward a little humility; they also make
the world more knowable. Every restriction corresponds to a law of
nature, a regulation of the universe. The more restrictions there are on
what matter and energy can do, the more knowledge human beings can
attain. Whether in some sense the universe is ultimately knowable
depends not only on how many natural laws there are that encompass
widely divergent phenomena, but also on whether we have the
openness and the intellectual capacity to understand such laws. Our
formulations of the regularities of nature are surely dependent on how
the brain is built, but also, and to a significant degree, on how the
universe is built.


For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at
the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything
is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some
weak-minded theologians. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place
for a thinking being. The ideal universe for us is one very much like the
universe we inhabit. And I would guess that this is not really much of a

Carl Sagan, “Can We Know the Universe?: Reflections on a Grain of Salt;” from Broca’s
Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, New York: Random House, 1979, pp. 13-18.

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