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

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9780465031719: The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

Do all questions have answers? How much can we know about the world? Is there such a thing as an ultimate truth?

To be human is to want to know, but what we are able to observe is only a tiny portion of what's out there.” In The Island of Knowledge, physicist Marcelo Gleiser traces our search for answers to the most fundamental questions of existence. In so doing, he reaches a provocative conclusion: science, the main tool we use to find answers, is fundamentally limited.

These limits to our knowledge arise both from our tools of exploration and from the nature of physical reality: the speed of light, the uncertainty principle, the impossibility of seeing beyond the cosmic horizon, the incompleteness theorem, and our own limitations as an intelligent species. Recognizing limits in this way, Gleiser argues, is not a deterrent to progress or a surrendering to religion. Rather, it frees us to question the meaning and nature of the universe while affirming the central role of life and ourselves in it. Science can and must go on, but recognizing its limits reveals its true mission: to know the universe is to know ourselves.

Telling the dramatic story of our quest for understanding, The Island of Knowledge offers a highly original exploration of the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers in history, from Plato to Einstein, and how they affect us today. An authoritative, broad-ranging intellectual history of our search for knowledge and meaning, The Island of Knowledge is a unique view of what it means to be human in a universe filled with mystery.

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About the Author :

Marcelo Gleiser is Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. He has published numerous popular works, including an essay, Emergent Realities in the Cosmos,” which was featured in 2003's Best American Science Writing, and three previous books: The Dancing Universe, The Prophet and the Astronomer, and A Tear at the Edge of Creation.

Review :

Gleiser has a gift for telling a story grandly and clearly. His history is nothing if not thorough, beginning in early superstition and mythology and methodically working up to current scientific questions in cosmology and physics. Along the way, he touches on everything from philosophy to optics to artificial intelligence.”
Science

Partway between Hannah Arendt's timeless manifesto for the unanswerable questions at the heart of meaning and Stuart Firestein's case for how not-knowing drives science, Gleiser explores our commitment to knowledge and our parallel flirtation with the mystery of the unknown. What emerges is at once a celebration of human achievement and a gentle reminder that the appropriate reaction to scientific and technological progress is not arrogance over the knowledge conquered, which seems to be our civilizational modus operandi, but humility in the face of what remains to be known and, perhaps above all, what may always remain unknowable.... The Island of Knowledge is an illuminating read in its totality.”
Brain Pickings

[Gleiser] is a gifted writer.”
Physics Today

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.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Island of Knowledge is a history of the mind, its gift for finding ideas in things. The brilliance of centuries of philosophic and scientific inquiry, never more remarkable than at present, bears a profound resemblance to the brilliance it discovers in the universe. Marcelo Gleiser makes us feel what a privilege it is to be human.”
Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and author of Gilead and Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

We've come to know far more than our ancestors could possibly have imagined including the depth of our ignorance. In Gleiser's lucid narrative, that marvelous paradox comes alive.”
Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate, and author of The Lightness of Being

Marcelo Gleiser brings a physicist's knowledge, a philosopher's wisdom, and a poet's language to elucidate our largest questions. If you finish The Island of Knowledge with all the same opinions with which you began it, then turn to page one and start reading again.”
Rebecca Goldstein, MacArthur Fellow, and author of Plato at the Googleplex

Articulate, elegant, and at times poignant, The Island of Knowledge is a magnificent account of humanity's struggle to understand its place in the cosmos. Starting from ancient knowledge of the motions of stars and planets and progressing to contemporary scientific theories of the origins of space and time, Gleiser shows how our efforts to comprehend the universe have transformed it into something rich and strange.”
Seth Lloyd, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, MIT, and author of Programming the Universe

Gleiser writes very well. He introduces the necessary concepts along the way, and is remarkably accurate while using a minimum of technical details. Some anecdotes from his own research and personal life are nicely integrated with the narrative and he has a knack for lyrical imagery which he uses sparsely but well timed to make his points.”
Sabine Hossenfelder, Back Reaction blog

[Gleiser's] discussions of cosmology and multiple universes are compelling.... [The Island of Knowledge] probe[s] deep into one of the most difficult intellectual problems on the human agenda.... [A] thorough and clear guide to the philosophical problems posed by the nature of the subatomic world.”
Washington Post

The quest goes on, always presenting us with new things to wonder about and to wonder at. Without that sense of wonder, as Mr. Gleiser's excellent book makes clear, there would be no point in doing science at all.”
John Gribbin, Wall Street Journal

Gleiser, who puts his faith in humility and hope,' writes with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, and without assuming that our current state of scientific knowledge is any more complete or final than that of previous generations.”
Columbia Dispatch

The process that shapes public policy often includes debate about what scientific evidence does, can and can't tell us. That debate can be enriched by this book.”
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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