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What We Cannot Know

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  497 ratings  ·  53 reviews

Britain’s most famous mathematician takes us to the edge of knowledge to show us what we cannot know.

Is the universe infinite?

Do we know what happened before the Big Bang?

Where is human consciousness located in the brain?

And are there more undiscovered particles out there, beyond the Higgs boson?

In the modern world, science is king: weekly headlines proclaim the latest sci

Hardcover, 440 pages
Published May 5th 2016 by Fourth Estate
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4.01  · 
Rating details
 ·  497 ratings  ·  53 reviews

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Stories For the Widening Gaps

I was educated in the school of anti-reductionism. That is, I was taught that knowledge of how the fundamental particles of the universe work would not help me understand what I might choose for dinner. I did take university courses in physics and chemistry, but the deterministic implications of science, those which suggested the fictional character of things like purpose and choice and free will, were never allowed to surface fully. It turns out that my views may si
Jul 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, mathematics
This is a fascinating book about the theoretical limits of our knowledge, our ability to make predictions, and to understand the universe. Marcus du Sautoy is a professor of mathematics at Oxford University. A central theme of the book, is to show how mathematics works as a powerful tool in helping us understand nature, and the limits to our understanding of how it works.

The book begins with a discussion of throwing a 6-sided die. With perfect knowledge of the position, velocity, and rotation of
Aug 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant, highly accessible, extremely readable and riveting exploration of the limits of human knowledge.

The author is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and he is highly renown for his excellent, contagious, enthusiastic divulgation to the wider public of the beauty of the mathematical world.

His exploration of the boundaries of human knowledge is multi-faceted, encompassing a variety of disparate disciplines such as quantum physics, cosmology and relativity, probability,
Jan 25, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Scrivere un libro su "ciò che non possiamo sapere", se ci pensate bene, è un ossimoro e un compito arduo. Non c'è dubbio che l'autore abbia una gran testa, il libro è interessante, e sarà ancor più apprezzato da chi possiede conoscenze di matematica e fisica più solide delle mie traballanti. Alcune parti le ho capite poco, ma non certo per colpa dell'autore.
Non mi preoccupo più di tanto, e invoco a mia parziale discolpa quanto segue:

Devo ammettere che la natura controintuitiva del mondo quantis
Maybe you thought this was a book about science? Well, actually, this is a love story, really! At least every 10 pages du Sautoy confesses his unbridled love to ... mathematics, the perfect universal language of our cosmos. That is not surprising, because Marcus du Sautoy is professor of mathematics at Oxford, and obsessed by the mathematical virus since he was a kid.

He uses that ‘weapon’ of mathematics to look at the sciences, starting from the question of whether there is anything that we will
Jose Moa
Nov 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, essay, physics
A very good,interesting and deep in concepts and reflections book.
In words of the author : "What I want to try to explore is wether there are problems that we can prove will remain beyond knowledge despite any new insights".
In the knowledge subject are famous the words of Donal Rumsfeld :
There are known knowns.
There are known unknowns.
There are unknown unknowns.
The author first explore what is known and then especulate about the unknowns.
The book is divided in seven edges of known and unknown.

Oct 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: british, non-fiction
I find this book really hard to rate. Despite always being told by her teachers and parents that science was not for girls and that I would always be bad at it because I was a girl (which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy), I have always had a deep-seated fascination with science in general and astrophysics in particular. Ever since realising as a child that the universe was either infinite (and how could that be!?) or finite (and then, what was beyond it?!) I have had this aching desi ...more
Emre Sevinç
May 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
If you've missed your share of popular science books on physics, cosmology, mathematics, and neuroscience during the last two decades, then this book can be a not-so-bad starting point. The author has a very down to earth style, and manages to be engaging at the same time. His objective is clear: are there aspects of live, universe, and everything that are in principle unknowable? Are there hard limits to science? The question is simple to ask, yet finding out definitive answers is not so easy. ...more
A 2-star rating would better reflect my own personal enjoyment of this book. I’ve rated it 3 stars partly because there were sections that I enjoyed, and partly in an attempt to include an element of objectivity to the review. Normally if I give a non-fiction book 2 stars, it’s because of easily identifiable errors or because the author has been overly tendentious. I can’t say either of those things in this case. However, my own reaction can be summed up in the old relationship breakup cliché:

Mr John N Pedley
A Mind Blowing Book.

The scope of this book brings together the current thinking in many disciplines from physics, philosophy, mathematics, cosmology, neurobiology etc, in a structured, well researched and authoritative narrative which seeks to explain the boundaries of human knowledge.
Aasem Bakhshi
A popular and extremely readable, at times funny version of complex ideas on the cutting edge of science. I don't think it deserves three stars for a popular science lay-reader; however, Sautoy failed to strike a personal cord inside me, perhaps because most of the material is well-known in the scientific tradition. He is a great teacher for making science publicly accessible but there are very little original insights here; however, as a collective, unified exercise, this whole concept of explo ...more
Oct 31, 2016 rated it it was ok
Modern physics and mathematics have brought some major new discoveries in recent years, but there is a general feeling that we are approaching the limits of knowledge, and soon further discoveries will be much more difficult or outright impossible -- at least according to the current paradigms. In What We Cannot Know Marcus du Sautoy, an English mathematician who was elected Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford in 2008, tries to explain these impasses to a general ...more
Baby Adam
Oct 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lance, popular-maths
Marcus du Sautoy takes the reader on a journey to the edges of current human knowledge. Most of the chapters are dedicated to physics, and provide a refreshing account of many different topics, with excellent thought-provoking explanations. I particularly enjoyed his explanation of the "many aeons" interpretation of the universe, in which the big bang is "glued" to the heat-death of the universe at which time all matter becomes energy and the notion of distance becomes meaningless.

The section o
Jul 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Marcus du Sautoy is the new Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, at Oxford University, taking over from Richard Dawkins. Overall I enjoyed it. Although i thought he spent quite a lot of time going over the general history of science, or at least some of the major events. He does eventually get to the hardcore questions of 'what is knowable' mathematically and logically, which is what I was really interested in, but only in the last few chapters.
Mar 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: physics, non-fiction
He's certainly a gifted communicator. And although the path he treads here is not exactly unbeaten, he manages to find novel ways to enlighten, clarify and entertain. His explanation of special relativity using Pythagoras is brilliant and just one example of many.
Jul 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
interessante, non scontato, scritto in un linguaggio abbastanza semplice ma certo non semplicistico, porta anche in luce le opinioni degli "addetti ai lavori".
consigliatissimo ai grandi curiosi.
Dec 04, 2016 rated it it was ok
"I have always been extremely unsettled by things I cannot know. Things I cannot work out. I don't mind not knowing provided there is some way to ultimately work it out."

This is a very important book. Uniting the disciplines within science and seeing all the sciences as a coherent formation against the boundaries of knowledge is an important viewpoint missing from much of popular literature. Chemistry flows seamlessly into physics, scientists and mathematicians collaborate, and big data and math
Feb 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful journey it was. Perhaps this is just an utterly subjective, childish reaction, fueled with this specific reader's resonance, when you no longer can be critical. It comes from when you've been thinking of something constantly for days, weeks, years - playing, building up and revisiting your imaginary construct - and then one day, while reading a book, your castle of poorly, crudely and naively chiseled ideas finds its perfectly verbalized form on paper. Now you marvel the languag ...more
Alec Kerrigan
Feb 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Seriously one the best pop-sci books I have ever read.

Rather than simply a dry explanation of concepts of infinity and Godel's theorems, it reads more like a journey for the author itself. So much information and concepts are packed into such a small package that will simultaneously satisfy you while leaving yearning to learn more on your own.
Dec 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Everything is brilliant (and weirder than you could possibly imagine)

Take one. There is a Paul Whitehouse character in the Fast Show, called "Brilliant Kid" who wanders round a variety of landscapes exclaiming "Everything is brilliant". Reading this book made me want to do the same thing.

Take two. There is a strand of speculative fiction, of which China Mieville is a leading proponent, referred to as the "New Weird". This book suggests that they haven't even got close to emulating the actual wei
I found this book interesting but quite hard going- more my fault than the authors I suspect.
Feb 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The first 5 stars books of this year. A very complete compendium of the state of knowledge in different areas of science. Only for the "paradox of the unknownability", attributed to logician Alonzo Church, the book is worth reading. Marcus du Sautoy is among the best science writers today.
David Pereira
Feb 06, 2018 rated it liked it
First five edges - great! Well explained and thorough.

I found the last 2 Edges - quite 'loose' and couldn't really grasp the intuitions shared about some of the ideas. I lost sight of where the author was trying to show me at times in these last 2 edges.

The mathematical viewpoint shared in this book about some of these ideas, made all the difference!

All in all an awesome read. The edges containing intuitions and history of quantum and classical physics I found super invaluable. I found that taki
Keith Bullock
Jan 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I was going to say that first and foremost Marcus du Sautoy is a mathematician, this of course, is true... but on reflection, I think that first and foremost, du Sautoy is an adventurer, a man driven by an insatiable spirit of enquiry; at the court of Queen Elizabeth, he would have captained a galleon on a round-the-world adventure.
I've always read bits and pieces on the 'Big' questions - the origin and the future of the universe, the nature of the universe(s), the riddles of quantum physics and
Emily Lythell
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyed this... My favourite non-fiction author. The content is kind of hard to grapple with but it's written so well it's still really enjoyable to read. If you're intelligent but have no idea where to start with understanding black holes, quantum theory, the concept of infinity, chaos, and what makes us conscious, give this book a chance...
Emanuele Gemelli
Oct 15, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: paper
Not The Best book of this Author, i must say. And himself admits here and there along the pages, he is more comfortable with math than physics and the writing reflects that clearly. Still good overview of the current boundaries of modern science
Bram Roose
Nov 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Eerste deel is wat herhaling (Hij biedt eengoed overzicht, maar gaat over onderwerpen die van verschillende keren beschreven zijn door verschillende auteurs). Laatste hoofdstukken zijn naar mijn mening vernieuwend en heel interessant.
Tristan Sherwin
Dec 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a fantastic journey into the unknown that all begins with the role of a dice.
Traversing science, philosophy, theology and mathematics, Marcus Du Sautoy's writing is compelling and thought provoking. There's much food for thought here.

--Tristan Sherwin, Author of *Love: Expressed*
Rohit Khetan
Feb 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Great overview of unsolved mysteries in science with enough context for a layreader. But the heart of the book is probably the last chapter in terms of the philosophy of Why Science.
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a ride! I was amazed by his thorough knowledge of maths, science, philosophy,you name it! However,I crossed out some sections due to my lack of knowledge!Such an adventurous guy!
"Polkinghorne is careful to assert that you allow shifts between systems where there is change only in information, not energy." So, miracles can happen not through God's direct intervention of changing cosmological laws but through the energy forms which I believe is through the events that can happen in one's day
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The fear of knowing everything 1 3 Apr 06, 2018 08:26AM  
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Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy, OBE is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.
“How do politicians cope with the challenges of predicting or manipulating the future, given that we can have only partial knowledge of the systems being analysed? ‘I think that’s rather a flattering account of what goes on here. With some notable exceptions it’s mostly a bunch of very egotistical people, very ambitious people, who are primarily interested in their own careers.” 0 likes
“The knowledge of what we are ignorant of seems to expand faster than our catalogue of breakthroughs.” 0 likes
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