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What we don't know


How scientists and non-scientists perceive the world
Francis Crick Scientist
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Well I didn’t actually learn the thinking at first, you know. At the first… you’re just satisfied by learning about all the strange things in the world and there are two aspects of why the world is strange. One is that it’s strange on the surface, I mean a giraffe is strange the first time you… you see it and… and no doubt the first time you look through a telescope and… and see stars more clearly or see there are more stars, there are lots of things which are just simply observation which are strange. But many people have that experience, you don’t have to be a scientist to… to appreciate all that. The… there’s the other… the other strangeness is the underlying simplicity of much of the world, which is not apparent from the complexity we see. And this is basically because our… our brains have evolved in terms of what our ancestors experienced, on the one hand, and what our own experience was. Our brains have devolved so they only look at a rather narrow part of what constitutes, really, the whole universe; they only look at a certain small range of sizes. They don’t normally look, for example, at things you can only see in a microscope, let alone things which are much smaller. They don’t look, normally, at things which are much bigger. I mean, most people have a pretty vague idea how far the Moon was, they have distances which are really earth distances. But when you look at… at the sizes we know from the very, very tiny things that you get in the interior of the nucleus of the atom now, right up to the size of the universe, you realise we only see a small very window of that. And the same with time. We… we have a time of experience which again we hardly appreciate anything which is shorter than a millisecond, a thousandth of a second. It’s usually in seconds, minutes, days, even… even a hundred years is not… we can grasp, but a thousand years we have to be almost taught. But the… great length of time, for example, of the… of the age of the Earth which is shorter, of course, than the age of the universe, four and a half billion years on the one hand, and the very, very, very short times which… which physicists deals with, with these events usually with very small matter and so on. Again, it’s only a very small window of… of time, so we only see… and our brains have evolved to deal handily with that. Now when you want to understand the world you have to go… you have to go beyond those narrow limits both… up and down, both in space and time and then you find that there’s a uniformity and extraordinary things happening which you’ve no idea of just looking at the world. And it’s… this is the fascination of science really, I think, to uncover so much which is not apparent just in everyday life.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Moon, Earth

Duration: 2 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 24 January 2008