Understanding based on observation: Gross

The Nation, January 8, 2008

THE MOST important product of knowledge is ignorance, according to Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Prof. David Jonathan Gross.

Gross, who gave a speech yesterday at Mahidol University's Faculty of Science as part of the "Bridges:Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace" event organised by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation, said 99 percent of human understanding of the universe has been based on observation.

Gross, a co-winner of the prize in 2004, said there are two kinds of ignorance: one is informed by bigotry while the other is derived from knowledge.

"It is ignorance that propels us forward,” he said, adding that it takes a well informed mind to ask good questions that will further advance science and knowledge.

He added that there are many questions still to be answered, such as what happened at the "Big Bang". "We still do not know what Earth was like right after the Big Bang,” he said.

Another puzzle which is becoming clear, however, is that 90 per cent of the universe is dark - something we cannot see but can feel- and has mass.

Gross, who won the prize for his joint discoveries of the so-called “strong force” - or the nuclear force that binds together quarks, which are the smallest building blocks of matter that hold together the nucleus of the atom - predicts that soon mankind will arrive at a revolutionary understanding of space and time.,

He said the world's largest particle-accelerator machine, recently built in finance and Switzerland, will be crucial for new discoveries in fundamental physics.

A new theory called the "String theory" is also shifting the understanding of physics as being based on point-like objects of nucleus to being based on dynamics.

His hunch is "that the new theory will help scientists understand the fate of black holes and provide tools to explore paradoxical issues that arise from "strong gravity".

"But we don't really understand what String theory is. What is at the heart of the theory, we do not know," he admitted, adding that our current understanding of the universe is like a blind man feeling an elephant with his hands for the first time.

"There are still many problems and questions, but the best is yet to come,” Gross said.