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The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning Hardcover – June 3, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0465031719 ISBN-10: 0465031714 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews


“Gleiser has a gift for telling a story grandly and clearly. His history is nothing if not thorough, beginning in early superstition and mythology and methodically working up to current scientific questions in cosmology and physics. Along the way, he touches on everything from philosophy to optics to artificial intelligence.”

“Partway between Hannah Arendt’s timeless manifesto for the unanswerable questions at the heart of meaning and Stuart Firestein’s case for how not-knowing drives science, Gleiser explores our commitment to knowledge and our parallel flirtation with the mystery of the unknown. What emerges is at once a celebration of human achievement and a gentle reminder that the appropriate reaction to scientific and technological progress is not arrogance over the knowledge conquered, which seems to be our civilizational modus operandi, but humility in the face of what remains to be known and, perhaps above all, what may always remain unknowable.... The Island of Knowledge is an illuminating read in its totality.”
Brain Pickings

“[Gleiser] is a gifted writer.”
Physics Today

“[Gleiser’s] discussions of cosmology and multiple universes are compelling.... [The Island of Knowledge] probe[s] deep into one of the most difficult intellectual problems on the human agenda.... [A] thorough and clear guide to the philosophical problems posed by the nature of the subatomic world.”
Washington Post

“The quest goes on, always presenting us with new things to wonder about and to wonder at. Without that sense of wonder, as Mr. Gleiser’s excellent book makes clear, there would be no point in doing science at all.”
—John Gribbin, Wall Street Journal

“Gleiser, who puts his faith in ‘humility and hope,’ writes with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, and without assuming that our current state of scientific knowledge is any more complete or final than that of previous generations.”
Columbia Dispatch

“The process that shapes public policy often includes debate about what scientific evidence does, can and can’t tell us. That debate can be enriched by this book.”
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“Gleiser covers a broad swath of subjects—from cognition and curved space to particle physics, superstring theory, and multiverses—with a thoughtful, accessible style that balances philosophy with hard science. His island imagery will capture readers’ imagination as it examines the ideas that unnerve us even as they illuminate our world.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Island of Knowledge is a history of the mind, its gift for finding ideas in things. The brilliance of centuries of philosophic and scientific inquiry, never more remarkable than at present, bears a profound resemblance to the brilliance it discovers in the universe. Marcelo Gleiser makes us feel what a privilege it is to be human.”
—Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and author of Gilead and Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

“We've come to know far more than our ancestors could possibly have imagined—including the depth of our ignorance. In Gleiser's lucid narrative, that marvelous paradox comes alive.”
—Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate, and author of The Lightness of Being

“Marcelo Gleiser brings a physicist's knowledge, a philosopher's wisdom, and a poet's language to elucidate our largest questions. If you finish The Island of Knowledge with all the same opinions with which you began it, then turn to page one and start reading again.”
—Rebecca Goldstein, MacArthur Fellow, and author of Plato at the Googleplex

“Articulate, elegant, and at times poignant, The Island of Knowledge is a magnificent account of humanity's struggle to understand its place in the cosmos. Starting from ancient knowledge of the motions of stars and planets and progressing to contemporary scientific theories of the origins of space and time, Gleiser shows how our efforts to comprehend the universe have transformed it into something rich and strange.”
—Seth Lloyd, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, MIT, and author of Programming the Universe

“Gleiser writes very well. He introduces the necessary concepts along the way, and is remarkably accurate while using a minimum of technical details. Some anecdotes from his own research and personal life are nicely integrated with the narrative and he has a knack for lyrical imagery which he uses sparsely but well timed to make his points.”
—Sabine Hossenfelder, Back Reaction blog

“Gleiser’s exploration provides a thorough primer to the perplexing questions 20th-century physics raised about our comprehension of reality. This scientific education is interwoven with history and philosophy, providing a balanced and often enlightening perspective on the bounds of science. Highly recommended to those interested in theoretical physics and philosophy of science.”
Library Journal

About the Author

Marcelo Gleiser is Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. He has published numerous popular works, including an essay, “Emergent Realities in the Cosmos,” which was featured in 2003’s Best American Science Writing, and three previous books: The Dancing Universe, The Prophet and the Astronomer, and A Tear at the Edge of Creation.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (June 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465031714
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465031719
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Customer Reviews

It is very readable, dynamic, clear, fun.
Santiago Herrera
There is no entry for "Values" in the index of this lengthy book.
R. Trowbridge
Marcelo makes each reader feel like a genius.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

80 of 86 people found the following review helpful By john messerly on June 9, 2014
Format: Hardcover

There is a new book on the intersection between science and the meaning of life: The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning by Marcelo Gleiser, the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Gleiser's main thesis is that our observations yield only an "island of knowledge."Thus there are limits to science's ability to answer fundamental philosophical questions. These limits to our knowledge arise both from the tools we use to explore reality and the nature of physical reality itself. What we can know is limited by the speed of light, the uncertainty principle, the incompleteness theorem, and our own intellectual limitations. Recognizing these limits does not entail abandoning science and embracing religion. We should continue our scientific investigation of the nature of the cosmos, Gleiser argues, for by coming to know the universe we come to know ourselves.

Obviously Gleiser is right--there are limits to scientific knowledge as the incompleteness theorem and uncertainty principle strongly suggest. As the island of our knowledge grows, so too does the ocean of uncertainty which surrounds it. Still science gives us our best chance to understand the nature of the cosmos, and hence the the most firm foundation upon which to understand the meaning of the cosmos.

Gleiser also argues that science and religion focus on the same question.

The urge to know our origins and our place in the cosmos is a defining part of our humanity.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By weston on July 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is ostensibly about the inherent limits of scientific knowledge, but actually provides an excellent summary of what is known (at least in physics) and traces its development from the Greeks onward, in the process of identifying these limits. One limit arises from the cosmic horizon of 13.8 billion years, before which the universe was opaque to radiation, implying that we can never receive information about regions further away than 13.8 billion light-years. Uncertainity at the sub-microsopic scale is due to the quantum weirdness of knowing only the probability of a particles's location until it is measured, the inherent uncertainty of that measurement and the entanglement (action at a distance) between particles

Early Western philosophers looked for a unified theory of the nature of matter. Thales (600 BCE) thought "all stuffs of the world were but different manifestations of a primal stuff, the embodiment of a reality always in flux". Parmenides, somewhat later, wrote "that what is can not change, for it then becomes what it is not". According to Lucretius (50 BCE), Leucippus and Democritus thought that all things were made of unchanging atoms moving in a void under various forces, assuming different shapes and forms under different forces by the reordering of numerous atoms. Aristotle posited a bottom-up natural arrangement of his four basic substances--earth, water, air and fire--to explain why a body moved up or down when displaced from its natural place.

As the author notes, scientific inquiry is an ongoing process, implying an ever-changing perception of reality.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A. MILLER on August 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book to support Gleiser and the 13.7 staff at NPR. I love the work they do and the human perspective they bring to the sciences. That being said, this piece of work fell short as a compelling cover-to-cover book. For one, I feel I was misled about the actual contents of the book. I understand authors are often at the whims of their publishers, but I can tell this book was trying to be about the limits of scientific understanding, how these limits affect science, and how they affect humanity. Unfortunately, the author's commentary on these topics could probably be condensed into 50 pages. The rest of the book is a meandering, if not pedantic, history of the human pursuit of knowledge. If I were interested in a history of philosophy or science, there are certainly many books which accomplish this better than Gleiser. If I felt that this history added a lot of value to the author's main argument, I could understand the attention it is paid. In reality, the author makes a clever analogy (about the "Island of Knowledge") towards the beginning of the book and then makes tenuous, disconnected references to this analogy as he reviews the past 2500 years of scientific history. I actually love the author's analogy and full agree with his philosophy on the limits of human understanding. I really wish the bulk of the book were more directly correlated with this topic. I hate to say it, but, given that Gleiser never delves really deeply into dissecting his analogy, the book comes across as a blog topic that got stretched very thinly into the length of a book. I don't regret my purchase because I'm happy to support Gleiser and co., but I the book is certainly not worth its price as it stands alone.
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