Background

Marcelo Gleiser is a physicist and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. 

Summary

The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning explores our place in the universe from a scientific worldview. The book ranges in topics from the origins of the universe, quantum physics, and human existence.

Interesting Ideas

In the opening chapter Marcelo Gleiser states that we will remain in mystery.

On the nature of science he commented that nature has always had the last word and “data cares little for our yearnings for aesthetic beauty.”1

The more we know the more we exposed to our own ignorance, and the more we know to ask. A quote from Einstein that opened the book was also fitting: “What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.”2

Marcelo comments that we wont be visiting our nearest celestial neighbors anytime soon. Our fastest space ship at 30,000 miles per hour would take one hundred thousand years to reach Alpha Centauri. If a new technology developed to travel at one tenth the speed of light it would still take 44 years. 

When astronomers look at space they are collecting light that has left its source millions and perhaps billions of years ago.

He touched on the future of the universe and solar system: In a few billion years our galaxy and Andromeda may merge, and our sun will turn into a red giant which will make life on Earth impossible (however it will be much before then due to fluctuations in “solar energy output).”3 The cosmos will become much darker with dying stars one to two trillion years from now.

He comments that the universe is extremely large, and possibly infinite.

In the last chapter he states that science should be celebrated as one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect. Science represents our urge to understand ourselves and seek meaning. “It is the need to know that makes us matter.”4

He states that not all questions have answers and that science isn’t supposed to answer all questions. This view of science isn’t defeatist but places science within the human, fallible realm.  According to Marcelo, the quest for knowledge is what being human is all about.  Awe is what has fueled us from the start.

Interested in the debate between science and metaphysics? Check out this article.


Notes

1. Location 275. Kindle Edition.

2. Location 189. Kindle Edition.

3. Location 1682. Kindle Edition.

4. Location 346. Kindle Edition.

Bibliography

Gleiser, Marcelo. The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. Basic Books, 2014. Kindle Edition.


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