The Known Unknowns: The Unsolved Mysteries of the Cosmos – Lawrence M. Krauss (2023)
If I could define myself with just one word, it would be “reader.” Everything in my life either stems from, or draws from, the many books I have read in my 49+ years on this planet Earth. My biggest heroes, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Anton Wilson, Richard P. Feynman, etc., came into my life through the written page. When I began RXTT’s Book Journey almost ten years ago, I dreamed of the possibility that book publishers and authors would appreciate my reviews and want to share their soon-to-be-released work with me. Dreams do come true.
The latest advance copy received by the RXTT household is physicist Lawrence M. Krauss’ forthcoming book, The Known Unknowns. (That is the UK title. The book will be titled The Edge of Knowledge in the USA, probably because Donald Rumsfeld’s use of the phrase “known unknowns” became such a joke in ignorant America.) After requesting it from Mr. Krauss himself, he contacted his publisher on my behalf and I was sent the book. MIND BLOWN.
The reason I read is to enlighten myself, both with new ideas and new information, for I am a curious mind. Sometimes, the most useful and valuable books are not the ones with the most data, but instead the books with the best questions. One such book, among many faves, is Richard Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law, a book full of ideas and questions which, it turns out, was also a guiding light for Lawrence M. Krauss. Feynman’s spirit, willing to share ideas in a thoughtful manner, directly engaged with the toughest questions, and able to explain the most obtuse scientific thought in a manner where a layperson can grasp the fundamentals, is alive and well in Mr. Krauss. We are all very fortunate.
Krauss divides this book into five chapters, each one concerning itself with a specific topic where science has shed some light, but where there are still far more questions than answers. Time, Space, Matter, Life, and Consciousness are the guideposts for Lawrence M. Krauss to not only sum up our current knowledge, but to also point out the vast gaps. Our collective ignorance is the greatest impetus towards science, scientific discovery, and new knowledge. The very worst of humanity arises when humans feel absolute certainty, whether political, religious, or social. Not knowing is the greatest gift to an inquisitive mind.
My biggest surprise as I devoured this book was its readability. There are many amazing minds in the world of science, and physics specifically, but very few have the ability to provide us their thoughts and knowledge in such a fun and engrossing manner. Some books, even great ones, can be a chore to read. Lawrence M. Krauss has succeeded in creating a book that will enlighten young and old alike, while also opening up their minds to the myriad possibilities yet available for exploration and research. This may be this book’s most valuable contribution, sparking the mind of some young students out there, and starting their paths toward new discoveries, new fields of research, and, hopefully, new questions. Questions are truly important. Anyone claiming to have all the answers is trying to rip you off, and should be treated accordingly.
Each chapter begins with questions. For example, the chapter titled Matter starts with these:
What is the World Made of?
How Many Forces are there?
Is Anything Fundamental?
Is Quantum Mechanics True?
Will Physics Have an End?
Will Matter End?
Krauss perfectly encapsulates our current state of knowledge in each chapter, sharing it with the reader through the specific details of past scientific achievement. He then explores how we came to find that knowledge, use it, and seek to understand the underlying principles involved. One of the best attributes of scientists is their humility in the face of new data. It allows for self-correction, which is why the scientific method has been such a valuable tool for humanity. Krauss details the baby steps taken in our human search for knowledge, steps often met with wildly erroneous interpretations, each of them critical points in our collective knowledge.
Krauss brings his physics knowledge to bear on what is the most complex and mysterious part of our everyday world, the quantum realm. He guides the reader through the many different steps us humans required to comprehend that the sub-atomic world even existed, and details plainly why it remains such a difficult science to explain. Everything in our modern world is touched by subatomic processes, from the manufacture of medicine, to the Global Positioning Satellite System, to the various smart phones and gadgets we all take for granted. None would work without our collective understanding of the processes involved in the quantum realm. The irony remains that, even as we use quantum science to create new wonders, we still do not fully grasp exactly what processes allow for these modern marvels to function. We are much like the ancient humans who used fire to bake clay, cook food, warm their home, and provide light, but had no clue as to what caused the fire to exist in the first place. We now know that free oxygen atoms in our atmosphere combine with the carbon in wood, and that this reaction creates new compounds (Carbon dioxide, water vapor) and energy (light, heat). It seems common sense to us now, but to a human living 500 years ago this would be utter nonsense. They “knew” that fire was but one of the four basic constituents of everything that exists, along with Water, Earth, and Air. For centuries, this basic explanation served its purpose, but it did not actually provide verifiable, repeatable truth. Only the scientific method does that.
I hope that this book receives a very wide readership, for it is as equally valuable to a young scientist as it is to a layperson interested in big ideas. Our world bounces back and forth from close-minded totalitarian fundamentalism to wide-open progressive ideals. It is very easy for a society to lose ground, to lose hard-earned knowledge and wisdom, because someone, or something, claims to know all the answers. Beware of anyone telling you to stop asking questions. RUN AWAY from anyone telling there are no new answers out there and we already know all we need to know. They are Liars and con-artists and only seek to control you so they can line their pockets. Find those among us who are kind, who seek new answers and new questions, who understand that, for all we know as humans, our knowledge is dwarfed by the vast amounts we do not know. Lawrence M. Krauss has crafted an amazing book, one that not only tells us what we know and how, but informs us of what we have yet to find out. I highly recommend it.
(This book will be published in the UK and the USA in early May, 2023)