The future of common knowledge

Deep Breadth
Feb 9, 2018 · 7 min read

Humanity’s greatest uncommon insights

The state of common knowledge

Most people today understand something about atoms and the periodic table of elements, DNA and genetic inheritance, cells and germ theory, evolution and the biosphere, plate tectonics and the continental drift, as well as stars and galaxies, among much else…

These are astounding and fundamental features of reality.

Going back only one or two hundred years, essentially nobody knew anything about any them, and aside from the biosphere and stars, nobody even knew these things existed.

It’s a truly incredible testament to human ingenuity and the efficacy of public education systems that this knowledge is essentially taken for granted today by the majority of society.

But it’s also not nearly good enough.

If our aim is to work towards figuring out how to live sustainably on earth while advancing scientific, technological, and social systems, if we want to propagate the biological community indefinitely into the future and continue learning about the nature of our strange existence, we have a lot of work to do.

Ongoing widespread ideologically motivated violence is evidence of the challenge that lies ahead of us.

Common knowledge matters

Objective knowledge provides a common basis for our rationality.

It puts us in the same ontological universe.

Living in the same ontological universe leads us to not kill each over differences in ideology.

Every experiment we’ve ever performed seems to point to the fact that we live in a single, coherent, consistent universe governed by laws that can be uncovered and understood.

The fact that you’re reading this on a device that requires a deep understanding of how the universe works to be constructed, and that requires the law and properties of physics to remain consistent in order for it to continue to function, is good evidence of this.

So what does common knowledge look like in the future?

Let’s paint a picture of what we’ll know.

The short and simple answer is that in the future, much more of us will have an understanding of the most salient and illuminating insights that are currently only known amongst experts.

We’ll know a lot more individual truths, but we’ll also internalize the larger narrative arcs of our existence. We’ll know the histories of how we uncovered theses truths and we’ll understand the evidence that justifies our knowledge.

We will know where we are in our cosmic neighborhood; we’ll know Alpha Centauri A is 4.3 light years away, that the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million, and that there are 50 galaxies in our local group.

We’ll discuss our favorite interpretations of quantum mechanics around the dinner table.

We’ll understand how some infinities are bigger than others, the utility of the complex plane, and how the prime numbers are the building blocks of the integers. We’ll all wonder if P=NP.

And we will all be able to tell the detailed, evidence based story of how the earth got here.

Cosmological history

We’ll all understand the splitting off of the four fundamental forces shortly after the big bang as the first phase changes of the universe as it expands and cools.

We’ll understand how the CMBR is a baby picture of the universe.

We will have an answer to the question of how the first stars formed from immense clouds of condensing of hydrogen and helium.

We’ll know how the hydrogen and helium got there, too.

We’ll understand stars as being enormous but balanced systems of gravitational energy pulling inwards and nuclear fusion pushing outwards.

We’ll be able to explain how successively heavier chemical elements form in the hearts of stars and why some stars end their lives in supernova explosions, and why others don’t.

We’ll know why iron is the most stable element, and why that’s pivotal.

We’ll understand why both fusion and fission reactions can produce energy despite the fact that energy is conserved.

We’ll all know about red giants, supernovas, black holes, quasars, neutrons stars and pulsars. We’ll understand how they can have very similar origins, and how some of them are essentially the same thing.

We’ll all understand stellar nursuarys, protoplanetary disks, and how solar systems form.

We’ll know what’s going on at the forefront of theories regarding abiogenesis and understand chemical evolution as a vital step.

We’ll grasp how DNA and chemical gradients define how organisms grow and how cells specialize into different organs and organ systems…how to go from a sperm and egg cell to a collection of trillions.

We’ll be able to visualize DNA replication, protein production, genetic modification, and mitosis on a molecular scale.

We’ll grasp the energy content of the universe and the fact that only ~4% is the ‘normal’ atomic matter we generally think of as being everything that exists.

We’ll understand the evidence for the shape, expansion, and large scale structure of the universe, and the implications for how it will likely end.

In short, we’ll know how the immense complexity around us arises from simple ingredients, how the universe continues to change, and where it’s probably heading in the long run.

E=mc^2

In the future, Einstein’s famous equation of mass/energy equivalence will not only be widely recognized, it will be widely understood.

Imagining and visualizing gravity wells and the fabric of spacetime will be commonplace and taught to school children.

Implications and evidence of relativity (gravitational lensing, time dilation, length contraction, and mass increasing as objects approach the speed of light) will be second nature.

We’ll also know what’s going on at the smallest scales…

We’ll know what quantum mechanics is about.

We’ll understand the wave particle duality, the uncertainty principle, quantum tunnelling, superpositions, and entanglement and how they all relate to one another.

We’ll understand how the standard model of physics organizes the fundamental particles based on their properties in much the same way that the periodic table organizes atoms by their properties.

We’ll have an idea of what’s going on inside the large hadron collider and other particle accelerators.

We’ll understand cloud chambers, interferometers, neutrino detectors, and other instruments of science too.

Perhaps most importantly, we’ll also know what we don’t know.

We will know where the frontiers of science are and exactly how we’re trying to push them forward.

We’ll know what the interesting questions are.

The whole species will anxiously await the results of major experiments as if we were all sports fanatics watching our team on the cusp of a victory on the global stage.

Neat.

So how do we get here?

Well, first realize that all of this is already known.

Everything mentioned is well understood science. We already have an incredibly detailed, evidence based story for how the earth got here.

We actually do know where the interesting questions are.

The trick is in dissemination…

Access to these pinnacles of human understanding is at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection.

But so are lots of cute cat videos.

And cute cat videos are easier to digest than particle physics and relativity.

There are really just two things we need to overcome for everyone to eventually understand all of these concepts:

Not caring

As soon as we reach adulthood we take on the burden of dealing with life. Bills and rent or mortgages, jobs and responsibilities, significant others and families, mental and physical health, rest and relaxation…there’s plenty competing for our time and attention.

And we only have time for what we prioritize.

We have to remember that we’re born scientists. We’re born caring about figuring out what’s the the world and how it works.

If we weren’t, we’d never figure out how to walk or how to talk.

In some sense, we just have to remember that the universe is still amazing.

“Somewhere out there, something incredible is waiting to be known”

— Carl Sagan

That innate curiosity and desire to better understand is still somewhere inside us. If the flame has gone out, we can reignite it. There’s a lot more to be known…

If awe isn’t motivating enough, we can remember that knowledge is power. To better understand how the universe actually is puts us in a position to be more effective at achieving any goal we might have.

If we want to make the best decisions we possibly can, better understanding how the world works is an excellent place to start.

Not capable

It’s far too easy to dismiss some concepts (or even entire disciplines) as being beyond us…especially if we’ve tried to understand them before and had the experience of only finding ourselves more lost.

This isn’t strictly a failure on our part…it’s a failure of pedagogy. We should revisit concepts we find challenging often, not because the concepts have changed, but because we have.

We have to organize our thoughts. Embed our understanding into large, expandable frameworks than can provide new ideas a home and neighbors.

If we try to understand the leaves of knowledge without first understanding the branches, trunk, and roots, we give them no context and no place to hang. To learn anything, we have to know what we know, and know what we don’t yet know in order to make sure we start our studies at the right place.

We are fortunate in having the shoulders of giants available to us. Not only that, but guides showing us the best routes to get up top…

Everyone today should have a better understanding of physics than Einstein, not because we’re smarter, but because we have the distinct advantage of being alive after him.

The truth is, we can all understand anything we want to in three easy steps (though in some cases we’ll have to really, really want to and for years at a time…).

The first step towards understanding anything is to find out that it exists.

The second step is to recognize that knowing the name of something tells you nothing about what that thing is or how it works.

The third is trying. Then trying again. Then visiting alternate sources, looking for footholds, looking for mentors, finding other approaches…you get the idea.

What now?

How much common knowledge of the future do you already know?

Are you willing to fill in the gaps?

Deep Breadth

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Big pictures, thresholds, and cross sections.