What if Everything You Know is Wrong: Bob McDonald (Transcript)

Bob McDonald at TEDxVictoria 2013

Full text of science journalist Bob McDonald’s talk: What if Everything You Know is Wrong at TEDxVictoria conference.

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Bob McDonald – Science journalist

Are you kidding?

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming back. We were all worried that once we let the audience out at four o’clock, it wouldn’t come back. So thank you for being here.

I am in a very privileged position to do what I do. I watch science happen. And then I write stories about it for radio or television or print.

But I feel like a surfer on the cutting edge of our knowledge as we penetrate our ignorance and we emerge into enlightenment. That’s what I do for a living.

I watch science happen. And in watching science happen, and this is also a significant year for me. 2013 is my 40th year of doing that. Can you believe it? 

It’s taught me a couple of things:

  • That science makes you see the world in a way that goes beyond your intuition and beyond your five senses.
  • It’s a pair of glasses that you put on and when, as soon as you look around, everything is different.
  • And it has shown us that the way we actually see the world is wrong. And it’s through science that we’re starting to get it right.

And that is why I would like you to ponder the question:

What if everything we know is wrong?

And the reason I’m asking that is because throughout almost all of our history here on this planet, we have been wrong in how we’ve seen it. So our lineage as homo-sapiens goes back. Well, the whole lineage of upright humans goes back about 6 million years.

And back then somebody, and we don’t know who had an idea to change our locomotion. We changed from being knuckle-walking quadrupeds to upright-walking bipeds.

And when we did this, by the way, I don’t think that was somebody’s idea. That’s not how evolution happened. There was an evolution of our pelvic joints that allowed our legs to point straight down instead of being permanently bent.

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But this revolution enabled us to look up. Our head is now a meter or so above the ground. Our eyes are pointing forward, not down. And our hands are free so that we can carry things as we walk. And we did walk, we walked out of Africa.

It took a long time; took thousands of generations. It actually took millions of years to do that. And as we did, we built tools with our opposable thumbs. And we emerged out of Africa, into Europe and Asia. And we spread ourselves around the world.

What a remarkable journey!

But during this whole time, as we explored our planet, the way we saw it was actually incorrect.

Because if you think about the way you see the world right now, you just go inside and look around, it looks pretty solid. It doesn’t move, just sits there. You walk in any direction, doesn’t matter which way you go, if you walk long enough, you will come to an ocean. So we live on an island.

The sky looks like this big blue dome over our head. Actually, it’s two colors. Half of it’s blue, half of it’s black and it rotates around. And the sun is stuck to the blue side and the moon and the stars are stuck to the black side. That’s what it looks like.

And it’s no wonder why the ancient Hindu model of the earth was that. This is how you see the world to your five senses. Of course, the Hindu asked what’s the world standing on; what’s holding it up?

So why not put it on the world’s biggest animals? So the elephants are standing on the back of a giant sea turtle that is swimming in that endless sea that surrounds us. That’s not too bad. That’s how you see it with your five senses. And when those elephants get uncomfortable, I guess that’s an earthquake.

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How far we have come. How far we have come. It took so much science. It took so much engineering, so much technology, so much philosophy to go from this, to the fact that we live on a ball.

We live in a ball. It doesn’t look like a ball, but there are as many stars under your feet right now, as there are over your hand. And not only that, it moves. “It moves”, there was a fellow named Galileo, got into a lot of trouble for saying that, but it moves.

Do you know that since this time yesterday, you’ve been all the way around the world? You have. The world took you with it. And you’re moving pretty fast.

Victoria, which is right here. Victoria is moving right now around the center of the earth at about the speed of a jet airliner.

So if the world was to suddenly stop turning right now, all of you would launch out of your seats and hit me at 800 kilometers an hour. It would not be a good day for any of us.

And then we’re whipping around the sun. We’re going around the Milky way Galaxy. The galaxy is part of an expanding universe. Wow, that’s astounding. It’s astounding that we know this; that we figured that out.

And the pinnacle of this, of seeing ourselves in its true light came in 1968 with this historic photograph taken from the moon. And just take a second to look at this. Because there we all are. All of us, all of humanity, all of our history, everything that’s ever happened here, all of our 6 million years on this planet, it’s there.

You also notice how flat the moon looks. Get close to a ball, it looks flat. But there we all are.

Hold up your thumb. If the Earth disappears behind your thumb, you’re at the right scale for this picture. From only the moon, which isn’t that far away, you can hide the earth behind your thumb. It’s small, but it’s alive. 

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And so have we figured it all out? Oh, and the last picture that was taken by a human being, by the way, was this one on Apollo 17, the very last mission to the moon. On their way back, they got a full earth. They took this shot.

And look, what’s in the middle of the picture? Africa, where we first stood up, where we first started making tools.

By the way, only 24 human beings have seen the entire earth in one shot. You cannot see this today. Our great Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield and all those who’ve been up in the international space station, they’re only 400 kilometers up. That’s like here to Kelowna.

And from the space station, you cannot see the entire earth. On this scale, the space station is about… that’s what you see.

You can see the curve, but that’s about it. You got to really get away from it before you can see the whole thing. We can’t do that today.

So only 24 astronauts who went to the moon are the only humans to see this. So this picture was the last time that the earth was photographed using an actual camera in a person’s hand. Hand, the same hand that got free 6 million years ago.

So have we figured it all out? Does that mean that everything we know now is right?

Not quite. It turns out we once thought we had it all figured out and it’s very dangerous to do that; to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve got it all figured out”.

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