The Dogs That Can Do Algebra

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Noted science fiction author (and attractive brunette with a Ph.D. from Harvard in Chemical Physics ) Catherine Asaro recently made an appearance in my futures-predicting class. That’s futures with an s because, as we often discuss, at any given moment there is an inordinate amount of possible futures that can happen given the present parameters. Far from being an Lose Weight Exercise in inhaling psychedelic fumes and issuing vague premonitions à la the Oracles at Delphi (or any fortune cookie factory), the seminar doesn’t ask us students to make accurate forecasts. Rather, we closely examine our current reality and, from it, make educated guesses about potential future realities.

To prepare for Asaro’s visit, the class read a short essay she wrote entitled “Year One Million,” in which she ponders the feasibility of humankind traveling beyond the speed of light (or achieving, in technical terms, “superliminal” speed) and harnessing this power so as to travel through space and time in a way that revolutionizes our development as a species. Class reactions to her essay were varied — most criticism stemmed from the fact that Asaro, despite her vast knowledge, generally writes for the lay person. (“I use some equations for people interested in the mathematics,” she says, “but understanding the equations isn’t necessary to follow the general ideas.”) Asaro’s argument, however, ultimately boils down to this: There are both known unknowns and unknown unknowns in this universe, and remembering that we operate under the influence of both is essential to scientific progress.

Known unknowns are things we know we don’t know — a germane example is the fact we know we don’t know if we can ever travel at or past the speed of light. Unknown unknowns — just like former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said (yes, that’s him on the unicycle traveling at subliminal speed) — are things we don’t know we don’t know, much in the same way a dog doesn’t know that it doesn’t know how to do algebra. (If you have ever wondered what Samuel L. Jackson sounds like philosophizing on the subject, I suggest you click here .) But according to Asaro, even people smart enough to be physicists and mathematicians are hubristic enough to believe there are virtually no unknown unknowns left to be discovered. Even without Asaro’s input, most of us would bet this is a foolish position — for the first time in human history, we wake up in the morning, go about our day, and by the time we go to bed expect there to be something different about our world. But one scientific sub-field is the closest thing we have to a “known” that’s assumed fully known: relativistic physics, which studies superliminal travel. Scientists are convinced that travel beyond light speed is impossible.

The problem with such a perspective is that it is foundationalist — it assumes the many layers of theoretical framework upon which the view is based contain true information. (I briefly discuss foundationalism in my last blog post , as well.) To say for a certainty that superliminal travel is impossible is to say for a certainty that the well of scientific knowledge surrounding it has been tapped — completely tapped; it’s to say that there are no unknown unknowns floating about, that we have found them all and figured them all out. Discarding foundationalism is difficult, but doing so leads to a wonderful question: Is anything truly knowable? If every law in the universe, from the atomic to the macroscopic, interacts with every other law, is it not impossible to say we fully know anything without saying we fully know everything?

Catherine Asaro doesn’t get this deep in her writings. She’s visited a ton of schools, and if the presentation my class received a few weeks ago was any indication, she enjoys thinking about the future with a light heart and a measure of whimsy  — the way most of us prefer to think about it. (What if we could live to be 150 years old? What if we could marry “people” created in online worlds? What if we could upload our minds to some supercomputer and thus kind of always exist?) But the unknown unknowns are certainly lurking. They aren’t necessarily sinister or threatening in nature, but by instinct we are wary of things we don’t understand, and it is because of our post-Enlightenment desire to control the future with science that we get anxious at the thought of stuff existing beyond our ken. The danger of assuming there are no more unknown unknowns is that it moves us to stop observing, to stop preparing for our futures-with-an-s. And when you’re walking through uncharted territory with no map and no compass, observations and an open mind are the only tools you have.