The Roots of Knowledge

Yuri Milner

Yuri Milner is a Russian entrepreneur, venture capitalist and physicist. He founded investment firm Digital Sky Technologies, through which he has invested in the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and Alibaba. Milner was listed as a ‘Titan’ by Time magazine in 2016.

The foundational story of  Western culture is a story about knowledge. Already at the dawn of civilisation, long before we came to call ourselves Homo sapiens, we understood that this was the essence of being human. The children of Adam and Eve are defined by what we know.

Yet it is only in the last few centuries that we have begun to reap the rewards of that knowledge: eradicating many sources of human misery, exerting control over earth’s environment, eventually even reaching beyond it. The reason is that it took us until the seventeenth century to invent the scientific method. Before that, we were the same species, with the same brains and the same gift for learning. But we lacked the spark that turns knowledge into a self-feeding flame.

We are now entering a new chapter in the story, with the transition to what Mikhail Fridman has called the, ‘Indigo economy’ – an economy dominated by knowledge, ideas and creativity. The success or failure of this transition depends on the structure and values of global society. Knowledge creation also depends on the continuing progress of fundamental science.

When you use your mobile phone to find a street, you are leveraging the deepest theories in physics: general relativity (for GPS) and quantum mechanics (for functioning microchips). Modern medicine is increasingly driven by basic research in genetics, cell biology and neuroscience. And virtually every technology relies on mathematics that was originally worked out for the sheer joy of it.

The greatest advances of the next generations will surely stem from curiosity-driven breakthroughs in fundamental science.

(Good bets might include quantum computers, gene editing and AI.)

In a feedback loop of exponential power, these new technologies will drive further scientific advances – just as Maxwell’s discovery of radio waves enabled radio astronomy, which brought us news of the Big Bang; just as the internet, invented at CERN, is transforming every science. And the sciences, thus transformed, will once again transform technology.

Or will they? Can we be sure that knowledge will keep growing, that the feedback loop will not be broken?

In Genesis, knowledge is represented as a tree. It’s an apt image. Like a tree, knowledge is self-creating, endlessly branching, fertile – and fragile.

This fragility is not immediately obvious. All around us we see the fruits of science and technology. We talk about progress as if it were a force of nature, which, once unleashed, is unstoppable.

But it is not a force of nature. It is a human practice, embedded in culture. And it is far from unstoppable.

To see this, we must ask why it took so long to reach the Enlightenment and invent science. The answer is that it didn’t. Between Eve’s apple and Newton’s, there were several enlightenments. The ancient Babylonians and Greeks, the mediaeval Chinese, Persians, Arabs and Florentines – each flirted with a scientific revolution. Important truths in astronomy, biology and mathematics were discovered. But they never led to exponential knowledge creation.

Why? Because the tree of knowledge was not deeply rooted in the social soil.

In each case, when war, or revolution, or some other upheaval came, the nascent scientific culture was abandoned.

The same thing could happen again. Although the roots of science have grown strong over the last 400 years, their soil remains thin. Despite all our progress, the pure pursuit of knowledge is not very highly valued in today’s society.

These decisions reflect the priorities of a public that is thrilled by technology, but lukewarm about the science that feeds it. But like the Indigo economy, the scientific enterprise can only flourish if it is embedded in a certain kind of global culture – a knowledge culture, in which the majority of us who are not scientists nevertheless embrace certain scientific values: we are rational and critical in our thinking; planetary and universal in our perspective; and fully invested in the quest for knowledge for its own sake.

Only a society committed to this ethos can face down the various forms of fundamentalism that accept technology but reject the scientific worldview. In living memory, we have seen such a movement take over Germany – at the time the world’s scientific powerhouse. It could happen again. Meanwhile, external hazards that threaten our entire civilisation – such as asteroid collisions – require scientific progress if we are to avoid them. The need for a knowledge culture is far from an academic concern. It is a race against time.

The fruits of the Indigo economy, and the scientific progress it is built on, hold the promise to transform our lives, and our planet, for the better. But we cannot afford to sit back and wait for it to happen. We have a duty to prepare the ground for knowledge and human creativity to grow.