The more we know, the more we realize there is yet to be discovered – In praise of ignorance

“Science, we generally are told, is a very well-ordered mechanism for understanding the world, for gaining facts, for gaining data,” biologist Stuart Firestein says in today’s TED talk. “I’d like to tell you that’s not the case.”


Firestein explains that ignorance, in fact, grows from knowledge — that is, the more we know, the more we realize there is yet to be discovered. The purpose of gaining knowledge is, in fact, “to make better ignorance: to come up with, if you will, higher quality ignorance,” he describes. “The purpose is to be able to ask lots of questions — to be able to frame thoughtful, interesting questions — because that’s where the work is.”

The Columbia University professor of biological sciences peppers his talk with beautiful quotations celebrating this very specific type of ignorance. Here, a few he highlighted, along with a few other favorites:

1. “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” James Clerk Maxwell, a nineteenth-century physicist quoted by Firestein.

2. “Part of what we also have to train people to do is to learn to love the questions themselves. If all you want in life are answers, then science is not for you. We have things that always give you answers to things–like religion… In science, on the frontier, the answers haven’t come yet. That’s why we have people working on the frontier.” Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bullseye.

3. “The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers.

4. “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.” George Bernard Shaw, at a dinner celebrating Einstein (quoted by Firestein in his book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science).

5. “Every answer given on principle of experience begets a fresh question.” Immanuel Kant‘s Principle of Question Propagation (featured in Evolution of the Human Diet).

6. “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” Socrates, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosphers (via the Yale Book of Quotations).

7. “Ignorance is the first requisite of the historian — ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art.” Lytton Strachey, biographer and critic, Eminent Victorians, 1918 (via the Yale Book of Quotations).

8. “In an honest search for knowledge, you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period.” Erwin Schrodinger, quantum physicist (quoted in Gaither’s Dictionary of Scientific Quotations).

9. “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovered exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “Fit the Seventh” radio program, 1978 (via the Yale Book of Quotations).

10. “Ignorance follows knowledge, not the other way around.” Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How It Drives Science.

CourtseyTED Blog – SCIENCE TED Talks – Posted by: Jessica Gross


In July 2011, I opted to retire from my active career as a practicing management professional. In the 38 years that I pursued this career, I had opportunity to work in diverse capacities, in small-to-medium-to-large engineering companies. Whether I was setting up Greenfield projects or Brownfield projects, nurturing the new start-ups or accelerating the stabilized unit to a next phase growth, I had many more occasions to take the paths uncharted. The life then was so challenging! One of the biggest casualty in that phase was my disregards towards my hobbies - Be with The Family, Enjoy Music form Films of 1940s to mid-1970s period, write on whatever I liked to read, pursue amateur photography and indulge in solving the chess problems. So I commenced my Second Innings to focus on this area of my life as the primary occupation. At the end of four years, I am now quite a regular blogger. I have been able to build a few very strong pen-relationships. I maintain contact with 38-years of my First Innings as freelance trainer and process facilitator. And yet, The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

2 thoughts on “The more we know, the more we realize there is yet to be discovered – In praise of ignorance”

  1. ignorance is pure bliss. knowledge leaves you with uncomfortable questions.
    ham aagahi ko rote hain aur aagahi hamein
    waraftageeye shauq kahan le chali hamein.

    aagahi = knowledge
    waraftageeye shauq = madness of search

    1. So well said.
      Search you are doomed and doomed you are further if you do not search.
      Karmayoga, therefore, probably talks of living in the present.
      But, as we know more of the futility to search for the future, we continue to tend to look at more, either in the future, and when we fail at deciphering anything that suits us, we fall back on the past.

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