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The Great Unknown
Cover of The Great Unknown
The Great Unknown
Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science
"An engaging voyage into some of the great mysteries and wonders of our world." —Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dream and The Accidental Universe

"No one is better at making the recondite accessible and exciting." —Bill Bryson
Brain Pickings and Kirkus Best Science Book of the Year


Every week seems to throw up a new discovery, shaking the foundations of what we know. But are there questions we will never be able to answer—mysteries that lie beyond the predictive powers of science? In this captivating exploration of our most tantalizing unknowns, Marcus du Sautoy invites us to consider the problems in cosmology, quantum physics, mathematics, and neuroscience that continue to bedevil scientists and creative thinkers who are at the forefront of their fields.
At once exhilarating, mind-bending, and compulsively readable, The Great Unknown challenges us to consider big questions—about the nature of consciousness, what came before the big bang, and what lies beyond our horizons—while taking us on a virtuoso tour of the great breakthroughs of the past and celebrating the men and women who dared to tackle the seemingly impossible and had the imagination to come up with new ways of seeing the world.
"An engaging voyage into some of the great mysteries and wonders of our world." —Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dream and The Accidental Universe

"No one is better at making the recondite accessible and exciting." —Bill Bryson
Brain Pickings and Kirkus Best Science Book of the Year


Every week seems to throw up a new discovery, shaking the foundations of what we know. But are there questions we will never be able to answer—mysteries that lie beyond the predictive powers of science? In this captivating exploration of our most tantalizing unknowns, Marcus du Sautoy invites us to consider the problems in cosmology, quantum physics, mathematics, and neuroscience that continue to bedevil scientists and creative thinkers who are at the forefront of their fields.
At once exhilarating, mind-bending, and compulsively readable, The Great Unknown challenges us to consider big questions—about the nature of consciousness, what came before the big bang, and what lies beyond our horizons—while taking us on a virtuoso tour of the great breakthroughs of the past and celebrating the men and women who dared to tackle the seemingly impossible and had the imagination to come up with new ways of seeing the world.
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  • From the book "Everyone by nature desires to know."
    —Aristotle, Metaphysics

    Every week, headlines announce new breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe, new technologies that will transform our environment, new medical advances that will extend our lives. Science is giving us unprecedented insights into some of the big questions that have challenged humanity ever since we've been able to formulate them. Where did we come from? What is the ultimate destiny of the universe? What are the building blocks of the physical world? How does a collection of cells become conscious?

    In the last ten years alone we've landed a spaceship on a comet, built robots that can create their own language, used stem cells to repair the pancreas of diabetic patients, discovered how to use the power of thought to manipulate a robotic arm, and sequenced the DNA of a 50,000-year-old cave girl. Science magazines are bursting with the latest breakthroughs emerging from the world's laboratories. We know so much more.

    Science is our best weapon in our fight against fate. Instead of giving in to the ravages of disease and natural disaster, we have created vaccines to combat deadly viruses like polio and Ebola. As the world's population continues to escalate, scientific advances provide the best hope of feeding the 9.6 billion people who are projected to be alive in 2050. Science warns us about the deadly impact we are having on our environment and gives us the chance to do something about it before it is too late. An asteroid might have wiped out the dinosaurs, but science is our best shield against any future direct hits. In the human race's constant battle with death, science is its best ally.

    Science is king not only when it comes to our fight for survival but also in improving our quality of life. We are able to communicate with friends and family across vast distances. We have created virtual worlds to which we can escape in our leisure time and can re-create in our living rooms the great performances of Mozart, Miles, and Metallica at the press of a button.

    The desire to know is programmed into the human psyche. Early humans with a thirst for knowledge were the ones who survived to transform their environment. Those not driven by that craving were left behind. Evolution has favored the mind that wants to know the secrets of how the universe works. The adrenaline rush that accompanies the discovery of new knowledge is nature's way of telling us that the desire to know is as important as the drive to reproduce. As Aristotle suggested in the opening line of Metaphysics, understanding how the world works is a basic human need.

    When I was a schoolkid, science very quickly captivated me. I fell in love with its extraordinary power to reveal the workings of the universe. The fantastic stories that my science teachers told me seemed even more fanciful than the fiction I'd been reading at home. I persuaded my parents to buy me a subscription to New Scientist and devoured Scientific American in our local library. I hogged the television each week to watch episodes of Horizon and Tomorrow's World. I was captivated by Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man, Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Jonathan Miller's Body in Question. Every Christmas, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures provided a dollop of science alongside our family turkey. My stocking was stuffed with books by George Gamow and Richard Feynman. It was a heady time, with new breakthroughs announced each week.

    Alongside these stories of discovery, I began to get fired up by the untold tales. What we knew lay in the past but we didn't yet know the future, my...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 20, 2017
    With uncommon grace, this work illuminates the strides and limitations of humans’ quest to understand nature via math and science. Du Sautoy (The Music of the Primes), Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, takes readers to seven different “edges” of knowledge and shows why “Newton, Leibniz, and Galileo were perhaps the last scientists to know all that was known.” From chaos, which “placed huge limits on what we humans could ever hope to know,” to consciousness, to infinity itself, each edge “represents a horizon beyond which we cannot see.” Patiently and cleverly explaining basic principles, du Sautoy begins most sections with a simple touchstone and builds from there, deftly rendering otherwise recondite theories: a pair of dice leads to probability, a cello to the nature of matter, a pot of uranium to quantum physics. One-on-one interviews with scientists and du Sautoy’s descriptions of his participation in various experiments breathe life into cold data, as when the author perceives his consciousness in another person or observes the illusion of his free will in an fMRI. This brilliant, well-written exploration of our universe’s biggest mysteries will captivate the curious and leave them pondering “natural phenomena that will never be tamed and known.” Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, Zoë Pagnamenta Agency.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from March 1, 2017
    Are there limits to human knowledge? Philosophers and religious thinkers have long answered "yes" and then provided examples that turned out to be wrong. A renowned mathematician argues that "yes" might very well be correct.Du Sautoy (Public Understanding of Science/Oxford Univ.; The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey through Everyday Life, 2011, etc.) sets himself a difficult task: "to know whether there are things that, by their very nature, we will never know." He asks, "despite the marauding pace of scientific advances, are there things that will remain beyond the reach of even the greatest scientists, mysteries that will remain forever part of the great unknown?" Readers will thoroughly enjoy his successful effort, which avoids the pitfalls of predicting specifics by addressing general areas. Empty space cannot exist; it's impossible to know the simultaneous location and speed of anything; particles sometimes behave like pure energy. This is true of everything but becomes obvious at the level of atoms and smaller. It's called quantum mechanics, a murky subject that nobody understands fully. The most powerful computer can't forecast a traffic jam or the weather beyond a few weeks because a small change at the beginning may produce enormous, unpredictable changes later. This is chaos theory, an implacable barrier. Deconstructing time and determining the size of the universe remain out of reach, but the mechanism of consciousness, once the poster boy of impossibility, now seems the inevitable product of increasingly advanced studies in neuroscience. The author concludes with his own field, which, unlike science, can prove statements absolutely. Infinity, once considered beyond comprehension, turns out to be full of interesting qualities, and parallel lines often meet, but mathematicians have shown that many statements and entire areas of mathematics are unprovable.A delicious addition to the "Big Question" genre.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science
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