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Quantum Uncertainty Poses No Obstacles to Knowledge

Once viewed as imposing absolute limits on knowledge and technology, quantum theory is now expanding the power of computers and the vistas of the mind

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Late in the 19th century an unknown artist depicted a traveler who reaches the horizon, where the sky meets the ground. Kneeling in a stylized terrestrial landscape, he pokes his head through the firmament to experience the unknown [see illustration on page 89]. The image, known as the Flammarion engraving, illustrates the human quest for knowledge. Two possible interpretations of the visual metaphor correspond to two sharply different conceptions of knowledge.

Either it depicts an imaginary barrier that, in reality, science can always pass through, or it shows a real barrier that we can penetrate only in our imagination. By the latter reading, the artist is saying that we are imprisoned inside a finite bubble of familiar objects and events. We may expect to understand the world of direct experience, but the infinity outside is inaccessible to exploration and to explanation. Does science continually transcend the familiar and reveal new horizons, or does it show us that our prison is inescapable—teaching us a lesson in bounded knowledge and unbounded humility?

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