April 22, 2007

Topography of Ignorance


So, obviously I made some changes. "Fish Heal Thyself" had been a non-sequitur and was always intended as a temporary name. But then you've got it there and you've got better things to do than think about what you should title your Very Special and Important Weblog and before you know it it's been two years. I decided though that I should try making things look more sciency so as to bring the title and appearance more in line with the general theme (at least when I'm not writing about potatoes and SkyMall). Ten points to anyone who recognizes the origin of my old banner (there's an example here).

The new title comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes (the physician and essayist, not the Supreme Court Justice) who once wrote that

Science is the topography of ignorance. From a few elevated points we triangulate vast spaces, including infinite unknown details. We cast the lead, and draw up a little sand from abysses we may never reach with our dredges. The best part of our knowledge is that which teaches us where knowledge leaves off and ignorance begins.

I have always considered this attitude to be the boldest aspect of the scientific philosophy. The devotion to doubt and uncertainty to be one of the things that I find so great about the discourse in physics and astronomy; I am not big on pretense in any aspect of life, and I am not sure whether it is the cause or effect of my love of science, but it is certainly somehow related. A frank assessment of one's limits of knowledge is at the very core of scientific work -- and not just in an abstract way either. I am not so uncynical to think that everyone in these fields is perfectly without biases, but as the ideal to be striven for, this sort of commitment to staunch honesty is such a wonderful and unique thing in our history. And when I stumbled across that quote a few weeks ago it just stuck with me. "Topography of Ignorance" just seemed like such a succinct and clever way of saying it, and with knowing-what-you-don't-know being my favorite principle of my chosen field of study, it seemed like a pretty good title for a website that I use to write about lobsters and the gyroball.

2 comments:

emilbeefsandwich said...

So, I just took a study break and ended up watching the conversation between N. Jeremijenko and Lawrence Krauss and all I could think was, "This guy totally wants to get in her pants!" I mean seriously, couldn't he have contained himself any better? He reminded me of this guy that used to sit at my bar and shake his glass of ice when he wanted my attention. He would simutaneously blurt out, Dorothy!, which was his mother's name. I think this was his midwest suburbia way of flirting, but it only made me want to slap him in his broken capillaries. Know what I mean?

And just to heighten the experience of my recollection, there is a guy I know doing a "poetry slam" on the public access channel right now. He just said, "...her thighs crinkled like celluloid." Isn't that vomitose?

(Ryan) said...

I don't know how you got to this post from there, but I agree, sort of. I think Krauss is actually a fairly upstanding guy, but that clip was definitely shot for maximum creepiness.

"Slap him in his broken capillaries." "Vomitose." Well done. I proclaim this comment a tour-de-force.