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Scientists are by and large ignorant people. In fact, science as a discipline is a study in ignorance. We don't understand many things about the way nature works. That itself is ignorance, defined. How did life get started on the earth billions of years ago? We don't know. What's at the center of a black hole? We don't know. Questions great and small, microscopic to macroscopic to cosmic, befuddle scientists every single day.

Ignorance.

Science is a technique, a tool for transforming unknowns into knowns. For measuring and quantifying in a way that minimizes bias, and providing theoretical structures in the necessary mathematics to extend our understanding. But as the sum total of scientific knowledge grows, so does the boundary. In other words, the more we know, the more we know we don't know.

Think of a balloon inflating with air. As it grows larger, the surface stretches out to accommodate that greater volume. The balloon is science, growing every day as scientists do their scientific things. And as our knowledge grows, so does that surface layer - our ignorance.

For every one question that we are able to answer, ten more pop up to replace it. The deeper we dig into the details and minutiae of a particular process or event, the more we realize we need to dig even further to truly understand. This isn't just to give scientists a sense of job security (after all, if we knew all the things that were able to be known, we'd be out of a job) but because that is simply the way that the scientific enterprise works. Science deals in approximation and models of reality. We attempt to get closer and closer to what nature is really doing, and we get better and better at describing it. But it's never perfect, ever. It's always based on observations that have uncertainties and mathematical models that have limitations.

And there are surprises every day too. Some new experiment or theoretical insight is capable of rocking our knowledge from a small subset of highly specialized topics to the entire body of scientific knowledge. Nature loves to play tricks on us - sometimes we can go decades or even centuries thinking we've got something cracked, only for nature to remind us who's really in charge.

The first thing a scientist must do is admit ignorance. “We don't know” its almost the motto of every scientist. Some things we are relatively confident about, sure, but we can't ever claim to have all the answers.

Two hundred years ago we didn't even realize does the big bang might explain the early history of the universe. And then we learned that the universe was expanding, and we had a whole new slew of problems and questions to answer. One simple observation opened up an entirely new branch of science, cosmology, that simply didn't exist before. And that branch now employs hundreds of people around the world devoted exclusively to that field of understanding, the same one that we were totally ignorant of just a few generations ago.

But the joy of science isn't necessarily in the knowing, but in the pursuit of knowing. It's fun to find things out, and also to find new mysteries to explore.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.


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