Ignorance will always be there

Praise to ignorance

As early as 1874, a physics professor told the young Max Planck that almost everything was known in physics, and that there was nothing left to research. That was shortly before atomic physics revolutionized our whole view of the world, to which Max Planck made a significant contribution with his quantum theory. You can see from this example how much even experts can be wrong when assessing the state of knowledge if they don't even know what they don't know.

The US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had this problem in mind when he made his much ridiculed statement about the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns - things that are known, things that are known to be still unknown , and things that are so unknown that you don't even know that you don't know anything about them. In such negative epistemology there is of course an intellectual challenge in a class of its own, because this is not about answers, but questions.

"Asking the right questions and thereby revealing ignorance is an important task of science. Because ignorance is always there, just not obvious to everyone; it is like the black animal, which in a picture puzzle the space around the white animal fills around and that one only recognizes when one has looked at the picture for a while. But then it can no longer be overlooked. "

Kathrin Passig and Aleks Scholz let the black animal appear 42 times. In 42 chapters, they show us 42 scientific gaps in knowledge, some of which are grave, some are bizarre, some are gigantic and some are irrelevant, but always so surprising that when you read them you quickly get into the state that was the starting point of thought for the Greek philosophers : the amazement.

"If one imagines the level of knowledge of mankind as a large map, the accumulated knowledge forms the land masses of this imaginary world. The ignorance is hidden in the seas and seas. The task of science is to push back the wet spots on the map is not easy, sometimes new puddles reappear in places that were believed to have been drained for a long time. One example is the question of when and by whom America was settled: it was considered cleared for more than half a century, has been for several years but completely open again because of new discoveries. Researchers increase not only the knowledge of mankind, but also ignorance. "

It is no coincidence that Kathrin Passig won the Bachmann competition a year ago with a text about geographical orientation difficulties. The map metaphors for knowledge are at best suitable for describing the detoured adventures with which the progress of research is often connected. Incidentally, the more unknown areas of knowledge that are measured and explored, the more new territory emerges. It's not just about gradually painting white spots on a card. This paradoxical growth of ignorance is reminiscent of a finding from brain research, namely that our head is not a bowl, as our worried parents believed when they warned us not to concern ourselves with useless. Behind this was the fear that the storage tank will eventually be full and that the so-called essentials no longer fit in. Because this fear is unfounded, we can delve into this lexicon with a clear conscience and, for example, learn about the strange custom of putting things together.

"As if it wasn't bad enough that animals often look so absurd that you want to stand in front of their enclosure all day and point your finger at them, they also display strange behaviors - probably only to us The fact that research funds from the biology departments have to be wasted senselessly does not matter to them. For example, one of the more puzzling animal habits can be observed in over 250 species of birds: the so-called Einemsen. The beautiful technical term was coined in 1935 by the German ornithologist Erwin Stresemann and describes the rubbing of the plumage with ants, other insects, but also aromatic substances such as mothballs, raw onions, soapy water, apple pieces, vinegar, cigarette butts and citrus fruits. "

Everything is technically correct and yet it is put in a funny way. The authors spice up the most complicated contexts with sloppy side remarks and punchlines that reach into the joke. Those who do not like this sometimes forced looseness are really unlucky with the book, because Passig and Scholz are on it.

And to come back to the one thing: at the end of the description and discussion of this strange behavior, all we know is that no one knows what it is for. It belongs to the division of biological puzzles, which takes up the largest space next to the physical. There are also the historical and social puzzles, but Passig and Scholz tend to avoid them, as certain ambiguities regarding the past can only be cleared up with the help of a time machine and must therefore assume that they are in principle unsolvable. But the selection principle for this lexicon consists, among other things, in the fact that it is a real research desideratum on which the specialist world is really working.

"The surest sign of good ignorance is when experts at conferences place bets on the direction from which the solution to a particular problem can be expected. So it would be ideal to torment experts with questions until they unanimously say that they are not Unfortunately, this is only practicable in a few cases. Instead, one has to laboriously and indirectly search for ignorance on the basis of the gaps in treatises on knowledge, which in most cases carefully explain the ignorance. Very rarely do you find direct references to ignorance. "

If it were different, we wouldn't need this book. But with some research effort, Passig and Scholz, even at home, not to say: intimate areas, tracked down gaping gaps in knowledge that even arouse more than just amazement.

"On the one hand, it is surprising that not everything is known about such elementary and comparatively pleasant matters as female ejaculation and the Graefenberg zone (alias G-spot). On the other hand, even the clitoris only became known in the 16th century - that is, some a hundred million years after its market launch - discovered by the medical literature. It can be assumed that it had already been noticed by interested laypeople at one point or another, at least in the 17th century the Danish anatomist Caspar Bartholin criticized his predecessors for that they adorned themselves with this alleged discovery: The clitoris was already known to the ancient Romans. That doesn't sound entirely unlikely. "

The fact that ejaculation - comma - female also lies in the shadow zone of secured knowledge, has of course completely different reasons than the knowledge gaps in relation to the elementary particles following in the alphabet. The situation is different when it comes to colds, yawning, money or hallucinogens, not to mention duct tape, ball lightning and the Riemann hypothesis. The impressive thing about ignorance is that in each individual case it has its own mental endowment, a kind of ignorance story that takes place on the back of enlightenment thinking and research. This is not only true for the topic of female ejaculation, but this is where it becomes particularly clear.

"In general, after a brief heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, sexology made slow progress, which is partly due to the fact that - in the US and in Europe - nagging voices arise when research on orgasm is to be carried out at universities. The taxpayer suspects anyway that too much research is carried out on orgasm and too little work is done at universities. This perhaps explains why most medical professionals to this day know less about the parts and functions of the female body discussed here than the average attentive pornography observer. "

If only the said pornography viewer is not the same as the said taxpayer. In other words: the lay model also has its pitfalls with regard to the scientific community. Kathrin Passig and Aleks Scholz mean everything positively, of course; they invoke the amateur as a means of combating academic business blindness - a concept that, thanks to the internet, has gained enormous significance. In fact, global knowledge has democratized in a way that gave birth to reputable companies like Wikipedia. In general, a new age of polymathy seems to be coming over us, a pleasure in the knowledge that was rampant in the 18th century as a side effect of the Enlightenment. The exorbitant success of "Schott's hodgepodge", that disjointed compendium of extremely interesting and completely superfluous information, is just one example of many. The zeitgeist, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, recently published a relatively randomly compiled encyclopedia entitled "Was.Wir.Wissen"; In this line, the present "Lexicon of Unknowing" represents the most advanced and at the same time most subversive position of a cheerful post-academic science that has evidently renounced the classical claim to totality of truth long ago.

The methodical looseness of Passig and Scholz fails only in one point, and that is when they deal with the mother of all gaps in knowledge: life.

"Because we only know one example of life in the universe, namely that on earth, research must inevitably be limited to this one special case. That is a bit risky, because considering such a special case can lead to completely wrong conclusions,"

The funny tone cannot hide the fact that here, pretty much in the middle of the book, things suddenly get really serious. Because before matter in human form began to think about itself, which to explain is still an unsolved challenge for scientists, that cosmic amino acid mystery occurred, of which, despite all our efforts, we have not yet understood the slightest. Our smart authors can do nothing else than report a few billion years of geological history including DNA sprinkles on seven pages.

"Water is an indispensable prerequisite for the origin and development of life, without water no primordial ocean and without primordial ocean no primordial soup. How water came to earth is again unknown. In some theories it is assumed that celestial bodies rich in water, for Take meteorites or ice crystals, for example, which supplied the earth with water relatively late. Other researchers assemble the earth from several small planetary embryos, some of which bring water with them. All approaches are problematic. Sometimes water arrives, but it disappears immediately, sometimes it comes also water, but only if you are very lucky, sometimes it doesn't work at all. And because it is controversial how and when water came to earth, it is also questionable whether the production of amino acids worked on the early earth itself if there was a suitable atmosphere. "

Two things can be learned from this: on the one hand, life actually works astonishingly well without our understanding it - a comforting aspect that is easily forgotten in the current stress of progress in knowledge; and on the other hand, those topics are clearly more entertaining that do not stretch from eternity to eternity, but lie on the stove bench and purr to themselves.

Yes, even the typical noise that happy cats make is truly still one of nature's unsolved secrets, although there was never a shortage of cats for scientist thirsting for knowledge. But it is not enough to cut up dead cats and write down in detail what they are filled with. Because then they no longer purr.

"Despite some efforts, it is not entirely clear how and with what cats purr, nor why they do it. The question of whether all or just a large number of the members of the Felidae family purr and whether they do it in the same way and the same remains open I mean by that, because apart from the domestic cat, hardly any data on purring behavior and purring technique have been collected.

"Or not" could, if the book did not already contain so many delicious mottos, be the motto above the whole thing. "Or not" is the perfect expression for the correct handling of scientific hypotheses.

"But even if you knew exactly what the cat is purring with, the question would still be open as to why it is doing it. Do kittens assure their mother that everything is okay? This would be supported by the fact that the purring also works when drinking to say that adult cats purr, too, not only "when interacting with friendly creatures", but also when they are in great pain or dying. Does the purr calm the cat? Or does the purr relieve the cat Release of endorphins from the body's own pain relieving substances? "

Passig and Scholz report a theory that the cat's purring stimulates bone growth and represents a kind of self-healing mechanism in general, because cats are known to survive any kind of injury as long as all their individual parts are gathered in the same room.

In contrast to purring, everyone can study yawning in themselves, and everyone may have wondered what the strange phenomenon of contagion is all about.

"One often hears that the cause of the yawning is a lack of oxygen. Allegedly, according to popular belief, people yawn when they sit in poorly ventilated rooms, in order to get more air by opening their mouths wide. This line of thought is probably closed simple to be true. Even simple plausibility considerations arouse faint doubts: Why do lions yawn when lying around in the savannah? Lack of oxygen? Why unborn babies yawn in the womb when they are supplied with oxygen by the umbilical cord (and not by the mouth) ? "

Clearly, this is another job for our ignorant detectives, and: correctly guessed - the ancient yawning is still a mystery to science today. It has something to do with the change in activity levels in the brain, but despite all the breakthroughs in brain research, we are left with a heap of guesswork.

"The complex nature of the yawning process is unique, especially when you consider that other involuntary exertions of the body such as sneezing, coughing or laughing are much less versatile. Yawning seems to be an all-purpose weapon, invented by evolution for ours anyway to add a new, peculiar component to the already bizarre existence. "

And this book is another chapter that portrays our world as a highly bizarre institution. This almost Biedermeier perspective of drollness has something quite relaxed about it. After reading it, one does not suffer from the newly piled up ignorance, but perceives it as healthy intellectual fiber - a recommended diet for the head.

And finally it's a book again that you don't have to read from the beginning. You can just as easily start reading from the back or from either side. As a reader you rarely have that much freedom. This is by no means a reference work. The term lexicon is to be understood ironically; it is not about short, pithy explanations of terms, but rather about creating a higher form of conceptual obscurity. And it's about a literary project where the text is still more important than the message.

Since science generally aims to eliminate ignorance and replace it with knowledge, the content of this book will only last for a limited period of time. The authors are still young and could experience that some of their discoveries are washed away by floods of research. There may be a need for additional topics. They don't even touch hot irons like climate change in all its controversy, but how about the abysses of homeopathy, the murder of Olof Palme or the enigmatic role of the thymus in humans? All things that one would like to describe in the Scholz-und-Passig-Sound with a sense of humor that is reminiscent of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.