The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

Marcelo Gleiser, Author
Marcelo Gleiser. Basic, $28.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-465-03171-9
Reviewed on: 04/07/2014
Release date: 06/01/2014
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Humans have worked to understand and explain the universe for millennia, but Gleiser (A Tear at the Edge of Creation), Appleton professor of natural philosophy and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, says we’ll never know it all—and proceeds to explain why. We are driven “to make sense of the world” and our place in it, and advances in mathematics and technology, from geometry and lenses to calculus and computers, have expanded our reach, revealing details of the very small and the very large. But as that “island of knowledge” grows, Gleiser says, “so do the shores of our ignorance.” From Copernicus’s proof that the Earth orbited the Sun to Isaac Newton’s laws of gravitation and motion, and quantum theory’s uncertainty principle, solutions that solved major problems also made many uncomfortable because they revealed deeper mysteries, showing “the true vastness of space and time.” Gleiser covers a broad swath of subjects—from cognition and curved space to particle physics, superstring theory, and multiverses—with a thoughtful, accessible style that balances philosophy with hard science. His island imagery will capture readers’ imagination as it examines the ideas that unnerve us even as they illuminate our world. (June)