Is this really true?

“Don’t tell me it’s impossible; tell me you can’t do it. Tell me it’s never been done… the only things we really know are Maxwell’s equations, the three laws of Newton, the two postulates of relativity, and the periodic table. That’s all we know that’s true. All the rest are man’s laws.” – Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Lemelson-MIT Prize.

This quote really struck me. It really got me wondering if this is true? I presume he is talking of Physics and Chemistry. Is everything else, except these things he mentions, we know theories we ourselves have developed with our own experience and thought?

The assertion can instantly be dismissed as untrue on its own terms: It doesn’t list itself among the things we allegedly “really know.”

Besides and by way of a compelling counterexample, Quantum Mechanics is the most thoroughly tested theory of physics. Ever. And by a huge margin. Bar the recent experiments supposedly measuring a superluminal speed for neutrinos (which still awaits independent validation), it has yet to suffer any serious challenge. In that sense, QM is something we “really know” more than any of the other ones.


Not being a scientist, I would guess the the word ‘postulate’ gives the lie to the statement, viz: inter alia per Free Online Dictionary “Something assumed without proof as being self-evident or generally accepted, especially when used as a basis for an argument”. Then as far as I understand it, the scientific method would suggest that a theory is only valid until proven wrong.

Indeed Dean Kamen is possibly a religionist as if suggesting
a) Newton is not a man (sic)
b) the periodic table is mans’ method of ordering chemical elements…did god develop it before Mendeleev?
c) e=mc2 was not developed by man?

Here is a quote from Natalie Angier, a science journalist, from her book The Canon, "Science is uncertain because scientists really can’t prove anything, irrefutably and beyond a neutrino of a doubt, and they don’t even try. Instead, they try to rule out competing hypotheses, until the hypothesis they’re entertaining is the likeliest explanation, within a very, very small margin of error – the tinier, the better.”

I love Natalie Angier she writes beautifully. I think that the above quote really explains Scientific thinking. It helps me understand. Reading Dean Kamen’s words it made me think that some things perhaps are considered certain in science. I am glad to know that what I understood about science is correct.

Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that with some things the margin is so small that we can consider it “hard facts”. I suppose that the theories might still be improved.

Thank you Mefiante, It is interesting that Quantum Mechanics is that well tested. I must admit my ignorance led me to believe that it would probably be the least.

I would not take much notice of what he said. He missed the most important law(According to me, might be wrong), the Second law of Thermodynamics. The following quote explains what I mean.

The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

–Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)

I am wondering what is his purpose for listing these few things as ‘true’. Does somebody have an idea why?

Looks like it could be an attempt to push an oversimplified worldview or a back-to-basics approach to science. The totality of humanity’s scientific and technological knowledge now far exceeds the ability of any single individual to command it all. This is a source of frustration to many because it shows the Renaissance Man to be a thing of the past. The typical response is to call much of this knowledge into question and/or to claim superior knowledge (which may boil down to the same thing). Danie Krügel is one example that fits the profile quite well.


Yes, I totally agree. He is rejecting hard earned knowledge and trying to say we do not know much. This is cynicism! Then he wants to poor syrup on it all by implying we can do anything because we know so little.