It’s ok to say “I don’t know”

Josh has just come into Fifth Year. I don’t teach him this year but have had a lot of contact with him over the years; he is enthusiasm personified.

His latest query relates to that little matter of The Big Bang. What, he asked me recently, was there before The Big Bang?
I thought about it briefly, wondered if I should mention Space-Time, singularities, multiple-universes and such, then realised that I should just be honest with him.

“Josh”, I replied, “I have absolutely no idea”.

“But you’re a Physics teacher – you’re supposed to know about these things”.

“That’s as may be”, I replied, “but it doesn’t change the fact that I still have absolutely no idea what was out there before The Big Bang. Or, for that matter, what ‘out there’ even means”.

Josh obviously wasn’t too impressed with this answer. Next time I saw him I asked him if he was still annoyed at me.

“Not annoyed”, he said, “just puzzled. “I asked four other people the same question and they all tried to explain it to me but I didn’t know even know what they were saying, so I just pretended that I was able to understand so they wouldn’t feel bad. I just don’t know why you are the only one who won’t tell me the answer.”

Though Josh doesn’t realise it, his comment was rather profound. It is depressing that we as teachers promote this myth that we have all the answers to their questions.
And, on a more philosophical level, that Science should have  all the answers to life’s questions.

The late George Carlin called the entire universe ‘The Big Electron’. It’s as good a description as any, particularly when you include Richard Feynman’s description of the electron:

‘The electron is a theory we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real.’

Here is Carlin with another of my favourite comedians: Bill Hicks.


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