The former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, made a famous statement about “things”:
As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns.
That is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know
we don’t know.
—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing
This eloquent quote points up what we need. We need to find a way to ask the right questions. The things we as a species know we can find in our common-sense experience, and coupled with that our educational system can add a layer of factual data based on experience that is greater than what we can learn as wild living individuals. As social beings with access to the internet and Google search we can easily find answers to a multitude of problems which might confront us. The internet gives us common people access to the known answers which we personally do not know, but which have been discovered by the 30 odd billions of people who have ever lived, and passed into human knowledge.
Then come the unknown unknowns. They are difficult to discover because they lie outside of current wisdom. If our knowledge has a gap, that gap can usually be filled by careful search or confabulated over with reasoned excuses. Sometimes this is elegant, like imaginary numbers in mathematics, but sometimes it is little more than pretty bandages over human fears, like reincarnation. These are in the realm of known unknowns; but the most fascinating question would be what are the unknown unknowns? Also, what are the unknowable unknowns?
Is there life similar to human life on the most distant galaxies? That is probably an unknowable unknown, although if natural processes work as they do in our known world there probably is life, but we can never contact it and so we can never know for sure. The question of life within our Milky Way galaxy is unknown at present, but it is a question that might someday be answered, and thus it is a potentially knowable unknown. We can understand the difficulties of these types of unknowns, and live with the non-knowing.
Now for the really important question of the unknown unknowns that can be known if we ask the right questions, or perhaps discover something by accident that leads to a new unknown. It was unknown because we hadn’t made the right observation, or it was unknown because we hadn’t asked the right question. Back in Berkeley at the Cafe Mediterraneum in the 1960s+, I used to set out a piece of blank paper and a pencil and say, “If you write the right thing on that paper you can totally change humanity.” I may have given that challenge to many famous and infamous people, but I never once saw anyone write something then and there that did anything earthshaking or even Med-shaking. Some of them did do great things, but not there.
I suspect that it is when a person is trying to do something really new that they are forced to step well outside of the known boxes for answers, and it is there that really new things come into being. Usually they fail, but when they succeed, and occasionally they do succeed, humanity is changed forever.
Albert Einstein told Yuan Lee his ideas were foolish, but Lee got a Nobel Prize.