We used to think that science could give us a perfect picture of the material world. But we now know, because of quantum physics in the 1900s, that absolute knowledge is impossible. There is a limit to what we can know – even with the most perfect and most powerful instruments imaginable.
For example, with a high-powered electron microscope you can see atoms. Yet no matter how much you increase the power you will never get a sharp image.
Even something as simple and straightforward as the position of a star in the sky is not perfectly knowable: different human observers come up with different positions and even the same person repeating the observation does not come up with the very same answer each time.
Karl Gauss in 1795 noticed that the observations made a bell curve – the closer you get to the average position, the more observations there are. But you cannot even say that the star is at the average position – all you can say is that it is the most probable position, which is not quite the same thing as its true position.
Gauss lived in Gottingen, a small German university town. It was here, over a hundred years later, in the 1920s, that some of the leading minds of physics came on the train from Berlin to work out the physics of the atom and its parts: quantum physics.
The atom is made of moving parts, such as the electron, and yet there is something very strange about them. Werner Heisenberg in 1927 found that you can tell what the position of an electron is but not its speed and direction – or, if you nail down its speed and direction, then you cannot tell its position. It is one or the other but never both at the same time. This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
Gottingen had something else: a collection of skulls. These skulls were used to support a racist view of the world, a view of the world that dealt in inhuman certainties. It came to power in the person of Hitler. The skies darkened over Europe, as they had in the days of Galileo. The great minds of Europe fled – or fell silent:
It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
- Jacob Bronowski: Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people – the conclusion of this part
- Jacob Bronowski: World Within World – part ten
- Jacob Bronowski: The Starry Messenger – about Galileo