Monday, 12 April 2021


We know nothing. If the past fifteen months have taught us nothing else it’s this. But rather than feeling downcast I feel excited. We’ve learnt to fast track medical research in a way that has all the scientists I know aghast with admiration and bafflement. We’ve reinvented stuff. We’ve learnt to live without any of the normal social conventions that were believed to hold communities together. We’ve discovered ways of working without unnecessary meetings. And we’ve done all this despite the rule book our experience and the pundits had drawn up being torn up and shredded.

Yes folks,  this is Terra Incognita and I like it.

It gets better.

Last week in Chicago, physicists said they may have discovered a fifth new force of nature to help explain the universe. I’d thought we knew a lot already. It seems I was wrong and that what we know only explains 5% of the Universe.  A very clever scientist said to me “what we know and our theories are not really fit for purpose”. “Like economics?” I asked “no everything is better than our knowledge of economics” he replied.

The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) said the result "provides strong evidence for the existence of an undiscovered sub-atomic particle or new force".  

That’s great. If these physicists crack the fifth force like they cracked the Covid genome we’ll be flying to Mars by Christmas. But what I like better is that the mystery of life and the possibilities of religious belief or life changing love may be nearer the truth rather than theorems I never understood.

I’m a poet rather than a physicist. I think Keats knew more about forces of nature than John Tyndall a contemporary of his who was eloquent in his views on diamagnetism (yes, me neither). The Victorian romantics were all focused on forces of nature; today more prosaic thoughts seem to occupy our poets. That’s what happens when we think we know a lot. Back in the 8th century the author of Beowulf knew little and frightened people a lot. His epic poem is full of darkness and horror. A bit like Covid really.

We think we’re all learning more and more but there a magical return swing of the pendulum whenever we think we’ve cracked a problem. Diseases that occupied me until recently but are now mostly solved  were measles, scarlet fever, polio, diphtheria: and overseas – yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, sars, swine fever. It’s as if we’ve done GCSE diseases and are now moving on to ‘A’ level. 

We know nothing. But is that so bad? It means we have lots to discover. The idea of space travel takes on a new, less self-indulgent meaning than we’ve heard from our trillionaire friends Musk and Bezos. The importance of learning new things and reducing the nothingness we know has never been greater.

Last week on BBC Radio 4 I heard someone describing the joy of finding a truly dark and light-free place from which to look at the sky at night from which they’d seen a bright star. They asked how far away it was to be told 1.5 thousand light years. “When would the light I’m watching here now have started?” they asked. “Oh I guess” came the answer “when the Romans were in Britain.”

The speed of the vaccine development has changed the possibilities for everything. Science has suddenly got sexy. Enthusiastic scientists like Brian Cox have sharpened our hunger for discovery. Perhaps we’ll soon know more than ever we imagined. 

Perhaps the 2020s will become a new “Age of Enlightenment.”


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