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

The Speed in a Modern Life

I am presently reading the sequel to “The monk who sold Ferrari”  –  Leadership Wisdom” by Robin Sharma. And now here is the coincidence that I have two articles from regular reading web-shelf on the subject of “moving Too fast” and (Executive)  ” Burnout” by Ben Fanning , in a guest article on “Great Leadership“.

So, this post – to bring in the essence of both articles, without precluding the “MUST read” each of the article and practice what they have said.

In Gentle Friday Reminder: Go Slow, Shri Tanmay Vora gently reminds us of a harsh aspect of the way we live our life today: “Life is too short (really) to zoom past it. At the end of a succinct article, thereby still , probably, facilitating the current mindset of whizzing mankind interest of reading the article for top-to-finish, he has ceratinly ‘gently’ jolted the reader by quoting “an amazing blogger, Nicholas Bate says: “Chase quality of life, not standard of living. The former is what most of us actually want”.”

Ben Fanning has retained the matter-of-fact narrative style befitting   the Management Genre of the Literature. The entire article – Why Burnout Should Alarm Executive Leaders – has a good deal of wisdom neatly stacked making it quite easy on an otherwise harassed, on verge-of -burn-out ‘modern’ executive to read the article. And the Bonus Tip “Celebrate the Small Wins – Find something to celebrate with your team every day. Even the smallest of wins can help build momentum to achieve bigger goals.” gives a small electric shock for the race for increasingly BIG wins in SHORTEST possible time.

Nandan Nilekani’s ideas for India’s future – A Talk recorded @ … sometime May 2009

We know Shri Nandan Nilekani, as one of the co-founders of Infosys, one of India’s leading information technology companies, back in 1981. After serving as its president and then CEO, he’s now joined the Indian government to help lead a massive new IT project: providing every Indian with a unique identity card [ UID] and to concentrate on his next great endeavor: re-imagining India in the new millennium.

His book Imagining India asks big questions: How can India — which made such leaps in the past two decades — maintain its demographic advantage? How can democracy and education be promoted? How, in the midst of such growth, can the environment be protected for the next generations?

“Seattle has Bill. Bangalore has Nandan. What makes Nilekani unique? For me it comes down to one phrase: great explainer.”  —Thomas Friedman

Shri Nandan Nilekani talks about India through the evolution of ideas. This is an interesting way of looking at it because in every society, especially an open democratic society, it’s only when ideas take root that things change. Slowly ideas lead to ideology, lead to policies that lead to actions.

There are four kinds of ideas which really make an impact on India.

The first is: “the ideas that have arrived.” — These ideas have brought together something which has made India happen the way it is today.

Six factors — the rise of the notion of population as human capital, the rise of Indian entrepreneurs, the rise of English as a language of aspiration, technology as something empowering, globalization as a positive factor, and the deepening of democracy — has contributed to why India is today growing at rates it has never seen before.

The second set of ideas is: the “ideas in progress.” — Those are ideas which have been accepted but not implemented yet.

The four factors –the ones of primary education, infrastructure, urbanization, and single market — are ideas in India which have been accepted, but not implemented.

The third set of ideas is: “ideas that we argue about” — those are ideas where we have a fight, an ideological battle about how to do things.

The three factors  –  ideological issues of caste and other things; the labor policies that make it so difficult for entrepreneurs to create standardized jobs in companies and, that 93 percent of Indian labor is in the unorganized sector and higher education in  India is completely regulated.- where consensus needs to be arrived at.

And the fourth thing and the most important, is: “the ideas that we need to anticipate.” –Because when you are a developing country in the world where you can see the problems that other countries are having, you can actually anticipate what they did and do things very differently.

The three ideas — use technology for governance, for direct benefits, for transparency, and many other things; the health issue [a set of poor country diseases with a set of rich country diseases]; the problem of entitlement — the cost of social security, Medicare, Medicaid etc. [ a chance to put in place a modern pension system so as to avoid entitlement problems as the Indian Demographic Society grows old];  to marry environment and development, i.e. no more environmental degradation as the physical development grows at around 8 to 9% p.a.—which require anticipation from what others did and do.

When the whole process of a billion people going to prosperity is in the fast forward mode, having a clear strategy is important for India and important for the world.

After almost, three years also his views on “ideas that we argue about” and “the ideas that we need to anticipate” still seem to demand as much attention and action as was possibly anticipated when he delivered this speech originally.

One of that topic is UID, under watch by all.