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Modern science fools us into believing we can understand the world.

Not so.

Take mathematics, the supposed foundation of science and knowledge. Galileo thought “the great book of the universe” was written in numbers. But just as light is both wave and particle, numbers are both discrete and ambiguous. Three is greater than two and less than four, but still far too inexact, given the infinitude of numbers between three and four, such as limitless pi, to capture the miracle of existence.

The same with 0s and 1s, which are insufficient to understand the sumptuous sound of a Stradivarius violin or the stunning majesty of a Michelangelo statue. Critics and aestheticians can quantify them, but they cannot capture them.

So too with yes’s and no’s: completely inadequate to comprehend all the aspects of love. (Hate, on the other hand, is all too easy to understand, given the manifold weaknesses of human nature.)

Scientists don’t see it that way.

“What we call reality,” said John Archibald Wheeler, a colleague of Einstein’s at Princeton, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He thought even the universe could be quantified. “The bit count of the cosmos,” he wrote, “however it is to be figured, is 10 raised to a very large power.”

With the enormous advances in technology and understanding that we have achieved in the last century, Professor Wheeler can be forgiven his hubris.

In 1906, when my father was born, there were no cars, no telephones, no electricity.

In 1983, when my son was born, there was no Internet, no email, no PCs, no cell phones, no GPS.

In 2008, when my grandson was born, there was no Android, no social networking, no Internet of Things. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, the three most ubiquitous artifacts of the worldwide web and social media, capable of broadcasting revolutions and influencing elections, were hardly older than he was.

We owe these discoveries to the ministrations of thousands of scientists and inventors, relying on the discoveries of their teachers and predecessors going back thousands of generations, the collective efforts of all mankind.

Even Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Nowadays scientific advances seem to come ever faster, and doubtless the next 25 years, with gene therapy, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, and robotic surgery, will speed us into the future faster yet, like the acceleration of a jet plane (unimaginable a century ago) before lift-off. Haphazardly we careen down the runway to a future of incredible developments and fearsome consequences.

But for all that, the geniuses, scientists, and inventors can never explain even the simplest of mysteries, like the pink-to-red hue of a simple rose.

By any other name, roses, art, love: at the heart of things, all is – and ever will be – mystery.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...