Physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised a young Max Planck not to go into physics, because “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes.”
With the clarity of hindsight we might say, “what a maroon.” Standing on the cusp of a century in which the world of physics would be turned on its head – led by the very man to whom he was speaking – von Jolly thought everything important had already been discovered.
Planck’s discoveries in quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theories of space and time were literally unimaginable to a man like von Jolly. His “few holes” were the known unknowns of classical physics. He had no idea that when Einstein and Planck dug down into the known unknowns, they would discovery unknown unknowns that would change the world forever.
I predict that as the twentieth century was to physics, so the twenty-first century will be to biology. Just as today we are inclined to smirk at von Jolly’s naiveté, in the twenty-second century schoolchildren will smirk at the naïveté of people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins who believe the fundamental questions in biology have been settled and all that is left is to suss out the details. If today we had even the faintest glimpse of the unknown unknowns of biology that will be discovered in the decades to come, we would gasp with astonishment.