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The limits of science: Martin Rees

Astronomer Royal

Einstein averred that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”. He was right to be astonished. It seems sur­prising that our minds, which evolved to cope with life on the African savannah and haven’t changed much in 10,000 years, can make sense of phenomena far from our everyday intuitions: the microworld of atoms and the vastness of the cosmos. But our comprehension could one day “hit the buffers”. A monkey is unaware that atoms exist. Likewise, our brainpower may not stretch to the deepest aspects of reality. The bedrock nature of space and time, and the structure of our entire universe, may remain “open frontiers” beyond human grasp. Indeed, our everyday world presents intellectual challenges just as daunting as those of the cosmos and the quantum, and that is where 99 per cent of scientists focus their efforts. Even the smallest insect, with its intricate structure, is far more complex than either an atom or a star.

Everything, however complicated – breaking waves, migrating birds, or tropical forests – is made up of atoms and obeys the equations of quantum physics. That, at least, is what most scientists believe, and there is no reason to doubt it. Yet there are inherent limits to science’s predictive power. Some things, like the orbits of the planets, can be calculated far into the future. But that’s atypical. In most contexts, there is a limit. Even the most fine-grained compu­tation can only forecast British weather a few days ahead. There are limits to what can ever be learned about the future, however powerful computers become. And even if we could build a computer with hugely superhuman processing power, which could offer an accurate simulation, that doesn’t mean that we will have the insight to understand it. Some of the “aha” insights that scientists strive for may have to await the emergence of post-human intellects.

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This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

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Goldsmiths diversity officer Bahar Mustafa receives court summons in wake of “#KillAllWhiteMen” outcry

Mustafa will answer charges of "threatening" and "offensive/ indecent/ obscene/ menacing" communications.

In May this year, Bahar Mustafa, then diversity officer at Goldsmiths, University of London, posted a Facebook message requesting that men and white people not attend a BME Women and non-binary event. There was an immediate backlash from those also enraged by the fact that Mustafa allegedly used the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen on social media. 

Today, Mustafa received a court summons from the Metropolitan Police to answer two charges, both of which come under the Communications Act 2003. The first is for sending a "letter/communication/article conveying a threatening message"; the second for "sending by public communication network an offensive/ indecent/ obsecene/ menacing message/ matter".

It isn't clear what communciation either charge relates to - one seems to refer to something sent in private, while the use of "public communication network" in the second implies that it took place on social media. The Met's press release states that both communciations took place between 10 November 2014 and 31 May 2015, a very broad timescale considering the uproar around Mustafa's social media posts took place in May. 

We approached the Met to ask which communications the summons refers to, but a spokesperson said that no more information could be released at this time. Mustafa will appear at Bromley Magistrates' Court on 5 November. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.