Using the Scientific Method to Pursue Knowledge, Overcome Adversity and Embrace Limitation.

Pursuit of Knowledge

The trick as an educated citizen of the twenty-first century is to realise that nature is far stranger and more wonderful than human imagination, and the only appropriate response to new discoveries is to enjoy one’s inevitable discomfort, take delight in being shown to be wrong and learn something as a result.

We don’t know everything and we never will. While it is easy to admit this in a broad sense, when it comes to specific subjects, we find it much harder to. We are unwilling to admit that we are not completely up to date on current affairs and always keen to offer a half-baked opinion that we state with the confidence of an expert.

This reluctance to admit ignorance is the antithesis of the path to knowledge that Brian Cox advocates. Denial of ignorance inhibits learning. We only learn when we are wrong. If we are right about everything and know everything then there is nothing to learn.

Admitting gaps in our knowledge and learning is uncomfortable, especially if it disrupts ideas and beliefs that we already had. However, this is the only way to improve, to become a more informed individual and ultimately, to make better decisions. We should not see ignorance as something to be ashamed of, but an opportunity for growth, the pursuit of knowledge and becoming a better individual.

Scientific knowledge — a type of knowledge radically different to historical or scriptural authority, based on observation rather than dogma.

To truly learn and admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, we must also take a new approach to learning. Like a child, we should approach everything with fresh eyes. Not comparing what is in front of us with what we have seen before. Not projecting our own beliefs and ideas, but with childlike ignorance.

The goal is first to understand what is being presented, not to judge. This is the only way to truly learn. It is also the healthiest way to learn as it allows us to consider all possibilities, rather than dismissing ideas out of hand as they clash with some preconceived notion that we had.

By focusing on tiny but interesting things with honesty and clarity, great and profound discoveries are made, often by flawed human beings who don’t initially realise the consequences of their investigations.

We tend to look for big problems to solve, not realising that the small problems are the most important. When starting a business it is essential to narrow down and focus on a niche, the more specific the better as you can better cater to that target audience. It is the same when finding a job, when we are younger we want to be a doctor or a lawyer, but the more we learn, we find out that specificity is important. We want to be a family lawyer or a gastroenterologist.

Breaking down tasks makes them easier to manage as we can then specify clear actions to take towards the goal. Focus on the small things, they make up the big things and it is the small, seemingly mundane actions that we do every day which are the most important ones in your life. Brushing your teeth seems so irrelevant, but you would certainly notice if you stopped. We only do it everyday because it is so important.


The safe return of Apollo 13 was arguably NASA’s finest hour…The [oxygen] tank exploded and the side of the service module was blown off, critically damaging the spacecraft’s power supply systems and venting the crew’s oxygen supply out into space… The only option was to shut down the Command Module and retreat to the Lunar Module, effectively using it as a life raft… “We were given the situation,’’ Lovell explained, ‘’to really exercise our skills, and our talents to take a situation which was almost certainly catastrophic, and come home safely. That’s why I thought that [Apollo] 13, of all the flights — including 11 — that 13 exemplified a real test pilot’s flight.” Both Lovell and Haise have said that the idea of not returning safely to Earth never really came up. ‘There was nothing there that said irrefutably we don’t have a chance.’

This is a situation that most of us will never come close to and one that could have been a complete disaster. However, the crew of Apollo 13 did not see it that way. They saw it as an opportunity to put all their knowledge and preparation to the test. They did not worry about what could go wrong, there was no point doing that, they just took action. Through action they didn’t have time to worry or let their minds run wild, there were jobs to do and they were doing them. It is when we stop and start to overthink that tasks become overwhelming and we lose hope, but when we act we see the progress, no matter how small, that we are making and this gives us momentum to keep going forward. This was combined with excellent preparation and knowledge and the confidence that they knew what they were doing. They believed in themselves as they had put in the hard work and hours beforehand so that when it came to action, there was no doubt over what needed to be done.


Man certainly does delight me. Our existence is necessarily temporary and our spatial reach finite, and this makes us all the more precious.

It is the limitation which gives value. We have to work in constraints as we are limited in our capabilities and in how much time we have. It is possible to look at this in a nihilistic sense and question what is the point of anything if it will all come to an end anyway. However, like Brian Cox I view this in a more hopeful sense. We have been given the set of the rules to the game and now it is our chance to play it. We are all given the same amount of hours in a day and the same days in a year, it is up to us to decide what we will do with them. We have been presented with the challenge, now it is time for us to rise up to it and be more than our limitations challenge us to be.

All quotes are from Human Universe, Brian Cox.

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