Are there limits to human knowledge? Philosophers and religious thinkers have long answered “yes” and then provided examples that turned out to be wrong. A renowned mathematician argues that “yes” might very well be correct.
Du Sautoy (Public Understanding of Science/Oxford Univ.; The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey through Everyday Life, 2011, etc.) sets himself a difficult task: “to know whether there are things that, by their very nature, we will never know.” He asks, “despite the marauding pace of scientific advances, are there things that will remain beyond the reach of even the greatest scientists, mysteries that will remain forever part of the great unknown?” Readers will thoroughly enjoy his successful effort, which avoids the pitfalls of predicting specifics by addressing general areas. Empty space cannot exist; it’s impossible to know the simultaneous location and speed of anything; particles sometimes behave like pure energy. This is true of everything but becomes obvious at the level of atoms and smaller. It’s called quantum mechanics, a murky subject that nobody understands fully. The most powerful computer can’t forecast a traffic jam or the weather beyond a few weeks because a small change at the beginning may produce enormous, unpredictable changes later. This is chaos theory, an implacable barrier. Deconstructing time and determining the size of the universe remain out of reach, but the mechanism of consciousness, once the poster boy of impossibility, now seems the inevitable product of increasingly advanced studies in neuroscience. The author concludes with his own field, which, unlike science, can prove statements absolutely. Infinity, once considered beyond comprehension, turns out to be full of interesting qualities, and parallel lines often meet, but mathematicians have shown that many statements and entire areas of mathematics are unprovable.
A delicious addition to the "Big Question" genre.