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.