There are no uncharted lands waiting for ships to find their shores, and few if any untasted fruits waiting for human lips. Many grand mysteries of the Universe have been cracked open by science, from the makeup of matter on Earth to the nature of the stars in the sky. The child who marvels at the adventures of Magellan or wonders about how the Universe works might worry: What is left for me to discover?
Our answer should be: Well, almost everything.
While we have made tremendous strides in mapping the planet and the cosmos, there are still vast tracts of unexplored scientific territory. Much of life on Earth, from the ocean’s depths to the microbiome in our guts, remains unknown. And the largest cosmic questions are still unanswered: How big is the Universe? What is 95 percent of the Universe made of? What happened before the Big Bang? Why does time move only forward? Does space have more than three dimensions? Is there life beyond Earth?
Even the tiniest particles inside the atom hold perplexing puzzles that elude today’s greatest thinkers: Why do we have anti-matter? Why does every particle have two heavy cousins? How many particles are there? Is there a single tiny particle (or string) that makes up all of matter?
Almost certainly, intellectual revolutions await us. Thinking back before the past few centuries of progress in scientific understanding, we can wonder: what it was like for people to live in such ignorance about the scale of the Universe, our place within it, the quantum nature of reality, and our own evolutionary history? How can we take history’s greatest thinkers seriously when they were so oblivious to basic facts about the human situation? Future generations will almost certainly think the same of us, while snickering behind their hands at the primitive absurdities that today we believe unquestioningly, and dismissing the silly ideas that we build on top of our grand ignorance.
So when we teach science to children, we should certainly describe what we do know, but there should also be a strong emphasis on what we don’t know, to inspire the next generation of explorers.
As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker: “Every few weeks or so, in the Science Times, we find out that some basic question of the universe has now been answered—but why, we wonder, weren’t we told about the puzzle until after it was solved?” When we talk about science to the public, we need to explain what we have discovered, but we should also not be afraid to tout our ignorance. When we introduce the grand mysteries, we make the case for the importance of further exploration.
The next Magellan, tomorrow’s Einstein might be more inspired by our ignorance than by our discoveries.