The limits of our knowledge

By Greg Jones

A tad over a century ago, the great British scientist Lord Kelvin (a ‘father’ of the science of thermodynamics) made some very hasty prophecies. In the 1890’s, Kelvin said variously that “radio has no future” and “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” In his most famous line, he told fellow scientists in 1900 that there remain only “a couple of small clouds” obscuring our understanding of the physical universe. As it would turn out, those two “small clouds” or “gaps” in the extent of human understanding were the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – the two most important developments in science in the 20th century.

One lifetime after Kelvin’s gaffe, a radical new understanding of the Universe had evolved. By the early 1960’s, the Big Bang theory had been put forth and partially verified by radio-telescopes.

Furthermore, in 1979, the contemporary physicist Alan Guth told the world what he thought happened in a fraction of a second after the Universe began – in the split second before the Big Bang banged. He proposed the theory that 14 billion years ago, the entire universe existed in a point a billion billion billion times smaller than a proton. All of a sudden, within a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, that tiny speck grew to the size of a grapefruit while maintaining all of its density. In other words, a universe of mass and energy appeared out of nowhere, instantly. Or, in what most of us would call no time at all, everything began out of nothing. Guth’s famous line is “the Universe might be the ultimate free lunch.” It just began. It just started. Out of nothing. And, it seems, that recent discoveries by the telescopes in space are confirming Guth’s theories to a tee.

The fool is the person who thinks he knows more than he does. The fool is the person who thinks he is wise. Conversely, the wise person is the one who knows he knows little. Why do I bring this up? Because the Bible tells us primarily that God is the source of truth and wisdom, not us. God’s word is light – not ours. We may know more than we did a century ago – but the more we know, the more we know we don’t know much.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones (“Greg”) is rector of St. Michael’s Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at

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