Know Everything

Richard Feynman's blackboard

Richard Feynman’s blackboard at Caltech at the time of his death in 1988. The text in the lower left reads, “Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.” From Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell, p. 83.

Since I was very young, I have been fascinated by the findings of science. It really is true that the world is a more intricate and wonderful place than we can imagine, and even the limited glimpses we have obtained into its underlying workings are more than enough to provoke awe and wonder of the most sublime kind. The more causes we understand, the more connections we perceive, the more incredible a place we see the world to be. Every peak we climb, through long and diligent effort, opens the way to a new and even greater vista before us.

I do not know when, or whether, the growth of our understanding will ever stop, but I am determined to follow it as long as I can, to appreciate as much as I am able. What is my goal in all of this? What do I want to know? The answer is simple: I want to know everything.

I want to be aware of everything that is happening, every new discovery that is being made.

I want to speak every language.

I want to know all of human history and understand the manifold and intricate reasons that guide its unrolling from one event to the next – the trajectory of every bullet, the spark of every idea, the vibration of every spoken word.

I want to know how Homo sapiens became the thinking species, who first tamed fire, invented the wheel, chipped stone to make a tool.

I want to peer back in history and see the human genome evolving, to watch the spirals of DNA twist and coil in the throes of natural selection, dispatching new instructions on how to build the body.

I want to know how the mind works, how signals crackling from one neuron to the next give rise to consciousness.

I want to see in geological time, so that I can watch civilizations rise and fall, glaciers advance and retreat, forests grow and fade, mountains spring up and erode down to nothing, continents glide across the earth on molten conveyors. I want to see populations migrate and shimmer in the thrall of mutability, where endless forms most beautiful emerge from the old in an endless flux of variation, radiation and extinction. I want to see the tree of life, perceive its many countless branchings, and comprehend the kinship we share with all living things.

I want to know how life started on Earth, in whatever warm pool or pitted stone or hydrothermal vent the first molecules drifted together, attracted each other, and clung together to become the first fragile self-replicators, delicate as gossamer at first, but then spreading out from their birthplace in an exponential wave to cover the entire planet.

I want to know how the planet itself formed, to see the swirls in the primordial nebula, see the collapse beginning, see the heart of the cloud brighten and ignite with solar fire, see the chunks of dust and stone that accreted, the collisions that baptized the new worlds in flame; to see the formation of the continents, the cooling and condensing of their oceans.

I want to perceive every scale, from the subatomic particles that tremble and flicker, to the magnificent galaxies that spin and collide, to the very largest distance scales where galaxies themselves are mere atoms in the structures that span the universe.

I want to comprehend the entire cosmos, from the quantum ripples in the initial white-hot fire to the chill of its ultimate end, and see it all as a whole. I want to see the fourth dimension of time like the other three, hanging above and watching people and planets trace spiraling paths through space-time, the history of the cosmos laid out in full view in one seamless whole.

I want to comprehend all the causal links. When I see an event happen, I want to know everything that affected it, everything that influenced it, all the subtle and intricate saliencies; I want to know the entire grand weave of causality, so that its outcome is as familiar and expected to me as the motions of my own body. I want to see the numbers and equations in everything.

To know everything is, of course, an utterly unattainable goal, something I am all too aware of. A person could spend their entire life in study of one small aspect of the world and still not grasp even that in its totality, and the connections between different areas are so numerous and intricate that sometimes it seems one would already to have to know everything to know everything else. We are disentangling them, one painstaking step at a time, though I do not expect this grand effort to be finished or even close to finished in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I am content to follow as best as I am able, and learn as much as I can. To echo Isaac Newton’s words, I may never swim in the vast ocean of truth, but there is still beauty and wonder in the pebbles and shells we may find along the shore.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • bassmanpete

    That’s EXACTLY how I feel – but you have put it better than I could ever hope to. When I was much younger I used to believe that there was a life after death and that I, and everyone else who’d died, would be able to look down on the world and see what was happening wherever we liked. But also we’d be able to scroll backwards & forwards through time and see how the Solar System formed, how life started, what really happened at the end of the Permian and Cretaceous eras, what dinosaurs really looked like in life & how they behaved etc., etc., etc.

    Now I believe that after death it’s just like it was before we were born – nothing. When I first came to this conclusion, I have to admit it used to frighten me. It doesn’t anymore, but it does make me feel sad that there are so many things I’ll never know. That’s the curse of being an ‘intelligent’ species I suppose.

  • John

    I also feel this way. It is so intimidating, however. I realize that I will never know EVERYTHING, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t try! I think it’s people like us, people that want to know everything and make it their life’s purpose, who are the one’s that advance humanity and keep us moving forward. I truly wish that every human being alive today had the same insatiable thirst for knowledge. Think of what humankind would have accomplished by now if that were so! This is the only issue I have with religious belief. It has held humanity back for so long, and continues to do so. It’s people like us that fight the good fight and say “No! I refuse to stop thinking!” It is a long and arduous struggle, but we will never quit. I hope that mindless believers are a dying breed, and that one day future generations will look back and view our current society the same way we now view society in the Middle Ages. This thought is what makes my life worth living, that one day we will advance superstitious thoughts and magical thinking.

  • Steven

    Such a beautiful, achingly wonderful read this is. I used to feel so, and I want to again so, so badly. Various excuses aside, I feel empty, but oh this touches me so and far more eloquently than I could even try right now. But that hunger, that restless, raging, sleepless, screaming ache to know. The joy found in taking one tiny shred of knowledge, of the most miniscule inch of new information out of either the words of another whether written or spoken or your own observation of life in any form. Of the delight in wracking your brain for answers, for new solutions, for understanding; of even simple puzzles that make the mind spiral into action. I miss it so, and thank you for taking me back and reminding me how wonderful a thing that is and that perhaps it has become more prevalent than I remember.

  • Ebonmuse

    Hello Steven,

    Thank you for your praise; I sincerely do appreciate it. Your comment gives me reason to be concerned, however. Why do you think it is that you don’t feel able to enjoy the thrill of discovery any more? It seemed to me that you described the feelings associated with it with wonderful eloquence.

  • V.N.K.Kumar ( India )

    Beautifully expressed. I feel exactly the same, and do the same. But most of the people surrounding me are content with acquiring professional qualifications, getting a lucrative job, marrying and bringing up children, succeeding in their careers, building a house or buying a flat,marrying off their daughters ( which involves a lot of money in our country), saving up some money for the old age ( there is no social security here, except for the Government officials who get a life pension), and after retirement, attending satsangs and pravachanas( which might translate as Biblical sermons in your culture) and waiting for death. Where is the time for exercising our curiosity about things scientific, they feel. They look at me as if I am weird !!

  • Johan Karlsson (Sweden)

    Beautiful!!! Science is poetry! Carl Sagan reincarnated.

  • Jayme A

    You should come to medical school. We learn more than you can ever imagine and the information never stops. I have heard medical school compared with an influx of knowledge that is being poured constantly over our heads as we are struggling to tread water (knowledge retained perhaps?). And it doesn’t stop. Think of it as intellectual torture! Except oddly and thankfully, it eventually pays off. Unfortunately, I have to get back to studying…but I will continue reading the site when I have time!

  • bassmanpete

    There’s an interesting video on YouTube of Carl Jung talking about death. It may give some people hope without having to become religious :)

  • Polly

    “I want to speak every language.”
    I’m working on that one. :-)

    I often complain that there’s no end to the books I want to read and I just don’t have the time. And then there are all the ones that I WILL want to read AFTER I’ve finished my current list because I know I will then understand what else I need to read. Increasing knowledge just makes you hungrier for more. The light of knowledge and understanding is quite possibly the most fulfilling (& pleasurable?) experience in the world. All new knowledge is exploration and discovery. One doesn’t need to board a ship or a shuttle, to discover new worlds.

  • Bill Johnston

    Since people like to know everything, perhaps this lecture presented to the Capital District Humanist Society might be of some interest: The Myths of Skepticism at this address:

  • LiveandLetDrive

    Wow, sometimes I feel very alone in this, and it is good to know I’m not. As an ex-Physics major, current Mechanical Engineer, specializing in Fluid Dynamics, specializing in Aerodynamics as applied to race cars, probably going to further specialize in turbulence…. it is all too easy to overspecialize and become a very narrow person. I think this is why many very intelligent people (my dad, also an ME) can be religious, they just don’t apply their intelligence to the broader spectrum of human knowledge.

    I too find it distressing that we will never know much of the past beyond the mere few thousand years we have been taking notes, nor be around for the future and see how the whole thing plays out. Also that I will never be able to master the intricacies of every discipline, though I intend to know something about everything. Knowledge is fractal. I think that sums it up nicely. There is nothing you can know that you can’t know more about.

    I have quoted Feynman’s “What I cannot create I do not understand” before, but I did not know the context, and the additional writing below it that you quoted. That guy has been my idol for a long time, talk about breadth! Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman is a must-read for anyone who at all relates to this post, it’s not a physics book!

    My recent favorite link for knowing everything: Go to “advanced search” and then the “video and audio” link to the right. Several complete courses in many subjects, wish there were more!

    Enjoy the journey,

  • Angeline

    i want to know everything too! which is why i think that if we live longer lives, or even forever healthily n youthful, I will be able to learn everything, try different things. The thing about life is that for eg, once u choose to be a doctor, u are pretty much stuck in it. If i could, i would be a scientist, architect, professional dancer and so much more… if and only if…

  • Patrik

    This read has made me learn some great combinations of words to describe to less ‘learned’ people about what truly goes on in my head. I’m definetly going to quote this and show those closest to me. I’ve recently been one of the ‘awakened’ ones that realizes everything around is is connected to some science, and every science is connected to eachother.

    The universe’s big bang started 13.7 billion years ago. Forces -> Energy -> sub-atomic particles -> atoms -> elements -> compounds -> prokaryote -> eukaryote -> multi-celled organisms -> senses -> instincts -> emotions -> consciousness -> the thinking mind. This is the evolution of the universe as we know it. Each transition to each step has been a complicated process, and we don’t totally understand ALL of the transitions. But one thing for sure is that the universe has evolved 13.7 billion years, all to make small pieces of it become aware of itself.

    If the universe can be explained through a science, and the universe created a thinking mind. Then there is a science behind the thinking mind, there are chain connections that make us think in different ways. Notice that the time between each step gets smaller and smaller, making me think that the thinkind mind is evolving itself. And there’s proof! everyday! our mind controls the interactions of senses with memory, our senses interact with our bodies, our bodies have now gone as far as interacting with subatomic particles… it’s only a matter of time before we observe the transition Energy Matter (May 2008 to be exact, LHC, look it up, eventhough I’m sure all of you reading this all ready know about it).

    So it makes you wonder, the universe has created the thinking mind to perhaps further evolve itself. Maybe the answers to where we (as a universe) are headed, is to found within where we (as a human society) are headed. Which I can tell you my thought on it.

    I think as the universe evolves (ie. animals -> senses -> emotions -> consciousness -> thinking mind) the next step depends on the previous step, and any given step manipulates the previous one. This also explains how we can manipulate sub atomic particles, because we use our minds to control our senses, and our senses to control our bodies, and our bodies to control complex matter (compounds), and so forth until we get further and further down to pure energy, and maybe beyond that. If you notice humans are in the direction of separating our bodies from our minds, dehumanization. We’re all ready predicting our minds been loaded into computers, something that can live a lot longer. The universe has granted us a VERY small window of opportunity for our minds, lets let our minds evolve further. The universe has gotten us so far, we are the universe, and this is our role, to figure out what the hell is going on here, and if that means transferring our memories to robots thousands of years down the line… well that just is the evolution of the universe.

    Scientists have always asked HOW instead of WHY. Religion has always asked WHY instead of HOW. I think by asking WHY first, you will confuse yourself, you fill in the things you don’t understand with fantasies (ie. gods), things that don’t make sense, which causes all our fears about what we don’t understand, and this causes all our problems, hence the reason for laws… everything can be explained through a science, and this is just what I think, and probably many many others.

    The reason why so much of the public doesn’t know about our true origins is because we are in the middle of a human evolution CUSP. As we get more experience as a race, we become smarter… notice there are a lot more science based people nowadays than there were 1000 years ago? 100 years ago? 10 years ago? So yes, you may not realize it yet, but we are living in the biggest cusp of mental evolution. Hence the reason for so many religions still around, but they are disappearing, and everyone is aware of it.

    Do I believe there is some sort of higher power? Until it’s proven one way or not, I will always suspect it, but never let it get in the way of my understanding of how EVERYTHING works. Makes you think, if you know how everything about everything works, you’re essentially the next evolutionary step, you’ll know how we sense, how we think, how objects were made, the forces behind everything. And if you have the ability to think beyond the next level of the mind, then yes, you will be able to manipulate any mind of the lower food chain class. Is this not ethical? Ethics was an invention of the human mind in order to create law to control the less knowledgable public. You have to admit if everyone thought like we do, then there would be no reason for any law because we all would understand how minds work and how emotions work, there would be no ego… this is the direction we’re headed in, so religious people I’m sorry, but yes you did grow up believing a false reality to keep you from going insane because the ancient people that created these religions didn’t have the knowledge we have today, you’re essentially believing something that was made up more than a thousand years go… you think old people can’t keep up with technology? Well religious people can’t keep up with the evolution of the mind. This isn’t to say that they are incapable of keeping up, it’s just that hardly any religious or typical society person will give up a lifetime of lies for a day of truth. It kinda makes me sad, but feel special at the same time that I can be part of

  • Steve Bowen

    The universe’s big bang started 13.7 billion years ago. Forces -> Energy -> sub-atomic particles -> atoms -> elements -> compounds -> prokaryote -> eukaryote -> multi-celled organisms -> senses -> instincts -> emotions -> consciousness -> the thinking mind. This is the evolution of the universe as we know it.

    Patrik, you make the often mad mistake of assuming evolution is necessarily progressive. There is no inevitability to intelligence evolving, the fact that it has in our species is a result of the particular selection pressures we experienced so that in hindsight we can see ourselves as a pinnacle of evolution. However the simplest virus around today is also at the pinnacle of its own evolutionary story so from its perspective the whole sequence from the big bang onwards was for its benefit.

  • Patrik

    Obviously evolution isn’t always going to be progressive if the universe is expanding to the Big Rip. By that way I see what you mean that intelligence may not evolve any further, we may get smarter, but may not be able to control minds or matter with our mind power. So intelligence would be the pinnacle of universal evolution in that case. So all we can do is get more knowledgable about the laws of science.

    I didn’t understand your virus analogy, but after giving it more thought I think I do. You’re saying that if a virus doesn’t evolve to the next evolutionary step, then it definetly is at it’s highest evolutionary peak. So just like maybe if there is a higher level, then it might not neccessarily be from humans, or anything on this planet. Afterall certain animals went extinct. Seems the universe is laughing at us, and we’re laughing at the universe.

  • Steve Bowen

    You’re saying that if a virus doesn’t evolve to the next evolutionary step, then it definetly is at it’s highest evolutionary peak.

    Not really. There is no “next step” as far as evolution is concerned. It is as Richard Dawkins says, a blind watchmaker, where random mutations are selected for or against depending on the envirnment the organism finds itself in (over time and across generations). The virus in my comment above is as “fit” for its environment as we are for ours, it is as highly evolved as we are.

  • Thegrandchild

    There’s always been very smart people who knew about the laws that rule the universe, and about the laws of human nature, which may be more difficult to desipher than the laws of the universe, because the majority of people don’t even know why we created Religions, Wars, Prejudice, Envy, Vices etc… and we don’t even know how to control ourselves. Being dumb is not so bad, imagine all the people in the world being smart, and being able to see reality, there would not be any religions, and who knows a lot of people would want to kill themselves, because human relity is not preety, like knowing that were alone in the part of the Universe, and that humanity is heading to a era when people will fight for energy, land and food.