What Don’t We Know About Gravity? Answer: Everything

Nobody knows what gravity is, and almost nobody knows that nobody knows what gravity is. The exception is scientists. They know that nobody knows what gravity is, because they don’t know what gravity is. – Richard Panek

Yesterday, I wrote a post, A Tale of Two Brains, where I mentioned that scientists don’t know what gravity is. I thought I should add a separate note about it because most people are unaware how much mystery there is in the subject and I thought I should provide a reference to back up that shocking admission of scientific failure.

Richard Panek has written an interesting book on the history of our study of gravity. He also writes about the how most people do not know that science is not as certain about its understanding of how the universe as we think.

In the first pages of his book, he writes of typical conversations he has with the general public and with scientists about gravity. He says that they fall into two categories:

Category One:

ME: Nobody knows what gravity is.
CIVILIAN: (Pause.) What do you mean, nobody knows what gravity is?
ME: I mean nobody knows what gravity actually is.
CIVILIAN: (Pause.) Isn’t it a force of nature?
ME: Okay, fine – but what does that even mean?
CIVILIAN: (Silence.)

Category Two:

ME: Nobody knows what gravity is.
SCIENTIST: That’s right.

We call gravity a force and we say it takes the form of a field, but we only say this because we don’t know how the force of gravity exerts its force over a distance. We can calculate its strength, but beyond that we don’t understand how it interacts with matter at all. Still, the general public thinks scientists know all about it.

We live in a time where scientists write all our new mythologies. That is an interesting thought because the purpose of mythology is to explain things that we cannot know for certain about our lives and the world around us. But, the people who come to believe these same stories don’t seem to know that scientists aren’t writing about what they know, but what they don’t know. And it’s well known that scientists are notoriously imprecise with their use of language. Good with math, not so good with words.

So, it’s a very curious thing that we live in a time where the storytellers are scientists and it’s even more curious that there is so little curiosity about it.