Friday, August 29, 2014


Book Review : Ignorance
Author : Stuart Firestein
My Rating : 4 out of 5

The complete title of the book is “Ignorance : How it drives Science”.

I don’t get too many chances to label a book as “nice little” in my reviews. This book gives me that chance. It is really a nice little book.

According to author Stuart Firestein, there is a widespread misconception that science works using a deliberate “scientific method”. Start with a hypothesis, make an experiment, collect data, prove a new fact etc. He disagrees and says, discovering is more like trying to find a black cat in a dark room, and when more than often, there is no cat to begin with. He also wants to stress that it’s the ignorance that drives science, not the knowledge.

He clarifies what he means by ignorance. There is bad ignorance, which is wilful denial of facts and logic. Then there is good ignorance, the lack of knowledge and hence the desire to acquire it. He explains this in detail in a bit lengthy preamble before he starts the main discourse.

First he explains how there might be limits to what we can know. It’s not that we are limited by our senses, but by our imagination and our intellect. The universe may consist of things that we simply will never find out or understand. That’s an interesting idea, but not new. What I found really novel was his take on two of the most shocking and discomforting discoveries of the last century - Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. They both put a limit on what can be known, or specified. That did not discourage the scientific community, but quite to the contrary, helped drive even more discoveries. This kind of ignorance actually drove more discoveries. I had never thought about it this way before.

Then he explains, how the good discoveries actually increase our ignorance by generating even more questions. Firestein stresses that this is real progress. The rest of the book expands on this idea in many different ways. He makes many good points. The esense is always similar. The real challenge facing science is always about how to choose the dark room to start their search, from a seemingly infinite choice of dark rooms. So our focus as  a society should be on preparing ourselves for managing this ignorance. The real excitement is in understanding what new questions need to be answered, not in accumulating answers of already solved questions. This is a very fresh perspective.

This is really a fun book to read. Quotes and humor are sprinkled throughout the book. The engaging writing style and small size makes it an easy read. Still I hesitate to give this a full five star rating. As much as I like the perspective, I think his thesis is thin even if fresh and correct. Perfect for a nice main article, but not for a full book. So the book doesn’t feel well organized, and similar arguments are repeated. With that minor complaint, I definitely recommend this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...