The Great Unknown

Ravi Mangla

If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.
     —Annie Dillard

The discovery of the Higgs boson resolved a fundamental conundrum in particle physics: How do elementary particles obtain their mass? The announcement culminated a near fifty-year pursuit of the fabled particle, and rescued the Standard Model from the catacombs of theory. However, some scientists were left with a curious sense of anticlimax. To quote Stephen Hawking after the announcement: “Physics would be far more interesting if it had not been found.”

We may never reach the core of the Earth or the outer extremities of our universe, but a Grand Unified Theory is not outside the realm of possibility. Our capacity to calculate and extrapolate with startling accuracy, to convert mind-addling abstractions into well-formed equations, has reached the rarified strata of art. In 2012, Norwegian research outfit SINTEF determined that 90 percent of the world’s data had been generated over the previous two years. This tidal wave of information is poised to submerge existing means of analysis. “In the next few decades, we will be able to predict huge areas of the future with far greater accuracy than ever before in human history, including events long thought to be beyond the realm of human inference,” Patrick Tucker writes in his book The Naked Future. By reading the tea leaves of these data streams, we will be able to anticipate natural calamities, the spread of infectious disease, and the spending habits of consumers.

The late polymath Buckminster Fuller was among the first to invest in the idea of human knowledge growing at increasing rates. In his 1981 book Critical Path he devised a “Knowledge Doubling Curve” to illustrate his theory. Beginning at the onset of the Common Era, it took 1,500 years for human knowledge to effectively double. In the years following World War II, doubling occurred at shorter and shorter intervals. At present, with resources like the Internet at our disposal, human knowledge doubles every year. Ray Kurzweil expands on this concept in his essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” in which he suggests that even the rate of exponential growth is increasing exponentially.

It is with this inevitable hastening that I experience a parallel sense of disappointment. As time marches forward, the sheer quantity of mystery in our daily lives appears in dangerously short supply. Even the most miniscule and routine aspects of the day have been divested of their ambiguities. Once upon a time, our perception of the world was shaped more by imagination than fact. Tales of canalled cities and gilded palaces bore the distinct tenor of fiction. Traveling came with untold risks. Now I have the omnipresent eye of Google Maps and can embark on my expeditions from the comfort of my desk chair. The mail, once good for a mystery or two, can be followed with a handy tracking number. With a few clicks, I can obtain the weather for the week, the menu at the Ethiopian restaurant down the street, and the capital of Suriname (Paramaribo). My car is furnished with a flat, uninflected (and unnervingly sleep-inducing) voice that tells me when and where to turn left, shepherding me expertly from one destination to the next. I even possess a nifty app with the name of a cleaning product that identifies songs for me (often amid the Chipotle lunch rush). Judged individually, these expediencies are clever bits of engineering. However, when exercised in succession, they mark something far more insidious: a systematic dismantling of the quotidian mysteries of life, an insatiable desire to shed a light on every unexposed corner and crevice.

Our impulse to unmask is amplified in practices like dating. Chance encounters have given way to armchair investigations. A Harris Poll found that 72 percent of singles research their dates online in advance of their planned meeting. The compulsion has less to do with maintaining personal safety than appeasing boredom. The pleasure that comes with uncovering private details is too good to pass up. A quick Google search can turn up all sorts of compelling curios. Online dating services like Match.com and OkCupid double down on data-driven romance, employing elaborate algorithms to pair us with our ideal partner, reducing human compatibility to a series of fixed statistical points. Mystery was once an appealing characteristic in a companion, but those days are disappearing.

I feel this absence of mystery most acutely when browsing for books. Some of my favorite titles are those that I stumbled on in used book stores: out-of-print or little-known volumes. Lately, before purchasing, I scrutinize the user reviews on my phone (on either Amazon or Goodreads), scan related titles for a frame of reference. Only when the book passes this digital gauntlet will I follow through with the purchase. It seems my passion for discovery has succumbed to a fear of mistake.

Late in his essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau meditates on the allure of mystery: “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.” Unknowing is perceived as something to be overcome, as a threat to the unimpeachable virtues of knowledge. But there is beauty in the unknown, in closing our eyes and leaping headlong into the mysteries of the world. The poet John Keats marveled at the capacity of man to contemplate the world without the need to resolve its incongruities or anchor it to some sort of steely logic. He introduced the concept of negative capability in a letter to his brothers, believing—in true romantic fashion—that artistry depends on the presence of mystery, as beauty resides in a place beyond reason.

Many of us cling to the illusion that a life of access and convenience is one of stability, in which nothing unforeseen can touch us. Yet, by insulating ourselves against chance we spurn the serendipitous: taking the wrong exit and discovering a whole new town, improvising on an established recipe, walking into a movie blind and leaving enlivened. My sixteenth birthday coincided with a family trip to Japan. We hadn’t prepared any plans, so we wandered around the city of Narita looking for somewhere to eat dinner. The restaurant we selected was a local haunt, unaccustomed to outsiders. The space was small, shrill, and enshrouded in smoke. Unable to understand a single word on the menu, we ordered items with a timid finger. The unseasoned brick of tofu and skewered chicken skins were barely edible and the meal as a whole amounted to one of the worst I’ve ever had, in Asia or elsewhere, yet the memory of that evening has lingered. A decade later, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it my most memorable and entertaining birthday. A beautiful disaster like this would have never happened had I been able to read the reviews—or even just the menu.

If mystery is a prerequisite to wonder, then our capacity to wonder is being left to wither. Thrust into the unknown, our senses dilate and our curiosity comes out from its musty cave. “It is the mundo of the imagination in which the imaginative man delights and not the gaunt world of reason,” Wallace Stevens writes, and yet we hesitate to place our faith in such uncertain hands, depending instead on that tactile temptress (see: phone) trembling away like a kitten in the rain, beckoning for our affections. There will always be instances when knowledge falls short of its intended purpose. To accept mystery is to surrender to the whims and volatilities of the world, its seeming contradictions, and to understand that the question is often more beautiful than the answer.

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