by Alissa Simon

The laws of physics appear straightforward. From elementary school on, we learn of their lasting permanence. However, as theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto points out in her recent book The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through Counterfactuals, they are far from perfect. She notes that we do not totally understand the nature of some of these laws, but also that these laws have been tested, and in some cases, replaced by theories of relativity. She writes, 

“There are no absolute sources of certain truth: any good solution to a problem may also contain some errors. This principle is based on fallibilism, a pillar of [Karl] Popper’s explanation of rational thinking. Fallibilism makes progress feasible because it allows for further criticism to occur in the future, even when at present we seem to be content with whatever solution we have found. It leaves space for creating ever-improving theories, stories, works of art, and music; it also tells us that errors are extremely interesting things to look for. Whenever we try to make progress, we should hope to find more of them, as fast as possible.” (16)

In other words, if we believe in progress, then we must believe in the fallibility of our best theories. Reading this book at times felt heretical, so strong was my grip on the laws of physics. (Please note that I am not a scientist, and so I have a high school vocabulary for much of this discussion.) Yet, Marletto’s words inspired me as no other recent non-fiction has. She asks us to think for ourselves and question our preconceived notions – even those seemingly permanent ones that we learned in school along the way. 

Reading this book inspired questions about humanity’s relationship to progress. Can humans sustain a mindset of perpetual unknowns? Marletto says that we should hope to find errors as quickly as possible, and I agree, but I also wonder what the human threshold for change might be. Constant questions challenge, and often annoy, us. Is that because of the way that we are taught about education and knowledge? Do we have misconceptions about the meaning of knowledge? We enter elementary school with a creative genius which colors the world any way we like. In primary grades, we are taught to look, explore, and question. However, snapshots of higher education show students taking notes, dictation, and tasked with memorization. This style of education may solidify the notion that knowledge is eternal. Marletto continues: 

“Any conjectured explanation which seems to be working may be found to be false at any time. As I said, this happened with Newton’s theory of gravitation when it was superseded by quantum theory and general relativity. We can never know whether a physical theory that we have formulated is true; all we can say is that it has so far not been found to be false. This may seem a little unsettling, but it is an extremely interesting fact about how knowledge is created; and, as I said, it is central to the possibility of making progress, via criticism.” (24)

This challenges my notions of knowledge, which previously felt monolithic, substantial, and solid. Marletto’s definition of knowledge is flexible, elastic, and tenuous. She accepts fallibility as a necessary feature of knowledge, which means that it is always subject to improvement and change. I sat with this notion for some time, and even re-read the end of her book while doing so because her words are extremely valuable and profound. Maybe I alone crowned knowledge king, in which case, I will work to unseat it from its throne. Rather than memorizing facts (which may or may not be useful depending on your discipline), I have the ability to become a better student. Open curiosity is a very valuable trait in lifelong learning.  And yet, so is knowledge. There is a tension here in the way that I want knowledge to be certain and steadfast, but also flexible. 

Marletto’s book incorporates literary analysis as a way to show how knowledge is a journey. This marvelous blend of disciplines breeds pathways to insight and carves the path for future science research, a path unmired from historical cement. Marletto asks us to create, to be creative readers, to evolve. She writes, “What matters is whether, along the journey, the character has or has not managed to create more knowledge while preserving his or her own individual capacity to create new knowledge. So an ending can be a fertile starting point; it depends on whether the character reaching the end is still capable of being creative. In fact, a successful nostos [return] does not have an ending. Its ending is the starting point of new adventures.” (225) Rather than accepting an end with finality, she claims that we have power to change and adapt, to find new questions and reassess our initial questions. Investigations become better as they gain data. 

I admit, this new way of thinking may not be new to everyone. Yet, more often than not, as educators, we assume our role is to instruct and form, to pass on knowledge of a firmer sort. What I would rather see in the classroom, however, is the ability to pass on questions. Demonstrate failure (a failed experiment or theory or manuscript, or what have you) as a step in the path towards success. What parts of our existing world have we not yet investigated? Where do our theories fail? Revitalizing questions will revitalize creativity, something that Marletto deems extremely important. She says, “Creativity is one of the main tools we have to form stuff that can last. If one is interested in making the good outcomes of our civilisation last and improve, then understanding how creativity is nurtured – both at the individual and at the societal levels – is essential.” (220) Fostering exploration will help students identify their own innate curiosity. 

I realize that this might cause stress for both educators and students. Constant challenge will unseat all stability. Questions that seem long resolved can be revisited, sometimes with fruitless efforts. All of this comes at the cost of time, so it is important that students select specialties based upon interests. Passion will drive questions with an energy that might overcome all other roadblocks. There is more to be done with regards to knowledge and its source. There is also more to be done with creativity. These two seemingly divergent topics are inherently related as I discovered partially due to Marletto’s excellent text. 

By mixing disciplines Marletto grants new eyes to old questions. More importantly, she inspires curiosity and demands us to undo some of our preexisting knowledge….a Herculean, and quasi-antiscientific effort. It makes me wonder why we believe – so strongly – that what we know is correct? I admire the courage of this book because it is creative, multi-disciplinary, and insightful. Moreover, Marletto explains complex scientific notions in ways that are accessible to the layperson. She invites all of us, regardless of degree or discipline, to join the journey.