Seeing beyond the illusion of knowledge: Jason Latimer at TEDxWallStreet

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Have you ever leaned off a cliff
and stared at the vastness and thought what it would be like to just step off and soar
through time and space? Okay, why are you guys
looking at me like that? No, there was at least
one time in our lives when we used to wonder about the world. Do you remember? Do you remember
wondering if you could fly? Do you remember finding out you couldn’t? Dusting yourself off, pulling those tree leaves
out of your hair? Refusing to accept these results, it was our sense of wonder that made us look back up at the tree
and wonder why didn’t that work. We were insatiably curious back then. We had impossible dreams. We had unanswered questions. I’ve spent my entire life just wondering
what hidden secrets the world possesses. I’ve spent my entire education
studying applied sciences, just wondering what is possible. And with all those hidden secrets
I’ve collected along the way, I ended up creating
my own style of magic – illusions that would not only help me
win world championships, they would actually
help me inspire wonder. So when I got the call about this event, I was so flattered
and so excited about this event that when they said this year
is about filling the void, I thought I was filling in for someone;
I actually thought I was filling the void. Then I realized what that meant: that the art of magic, you know, the art of magic fills a void
by creating wonder. Wonder evokes those questions, and those passionately asked questions
are what fill our voids. Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology
is indistinguishable from magic. And it was that magic, as a child, that led us to destroy
our family’s kitchen appliances, guided by our screwdrivers of wonder. No, you remember the moment. You know, that sense of wonder ignites
that passion and want to know more. I know that first hand. I was nine when my parents
took me to a magic show, and I saw a beautiful red-haired lady
fly high above the stage, and I saw beautiful white doves
materialize out of nowhere. I saw a screeching motorcycle
vanish into thin air. I saw the impossible
take place that night, and that magician onstage challenged
my entire understanding of the world. Everything I saw went against
everything I knew, and I couldn’t even fathom
how he had different rules than I did. (Snapping) And then it hit me; this eruption of questions
and possibilities just blew my mind. What are these new rules? And I needed to know
what is ultimately possible. First, I questioned
everything I knew about science. My fifth-grade teacher
retired that year, by the way – just putting that out there. As I grew up, so did my approach. First mathematics, then applied physics. Studied chemistry. Went on to pursue psychology
and even economics. As you can imagine,
I was in college forever. I was the only undergraduate
to receive tenure. (Laughter) No, I’m serious. Because I was too busy
wondering about these rules. They kept changing
with every new question, you know? I started thinking that every fact
had what I call a tipping point. Every rule had an exception. You cannot walk on water jets. Unless the upward force
would be equal to the weight. And then people would say stuff
like “You can’t manipulate light.” Unless there was a change in its density, a change in gravity or a change
in the density it went through. I started going at it the other direction. People would say stuff like –
even magicians would say – “You can’t play the game
of follow-the-ball-under-a-cup if the cups are made of clear glass.” Unless you found a way
to induce inattentional blindness through a perceptual psychology class. I found out that every fact
and every impossible feat had what I call one condition
where it would fail. It would absolutely fail. In that pursuit of rules and answers, I found out that the right question
changes everything. The secret to bringing
impossible situations to life is wonder. Let me show you what I mean. I’m going to need some help
from the audience. We’re going to be using this table and this guy. Will you help me out? Great. Come on up. Let’s give him a round of applause. (Applause) Perfect. What’s your name? Adam: Adam. Jason Latimer: Pleasure to meet you,
Adam. This is your bowl of wonder. We’re going to use
these two pitchers of water. I need you to place your hands
over the bowl. I’ll pour these pitchers of water
through your hand if that’s okay. All right. Face up. I want you to make sure nothing
comes out of these pitchers of water except for water, okay? Adam, right? Adam, put your hand inside the bowl. Make sure there’s no
hidden compartments, trap doors. Now, more importantly, with one finger
feel along the side of the bowl. Along the sides, it’s smooth, right? Adam: Totally smooth. JL: Perfect. Here you go. Now, I want you guys
to dream about magic with me. Let’s dream about the magic
of controlling water. Could we actually shape water
without a container? The idea alone is a void; it’s something we’d never
even be familiar with. But if we really want to do it,
we’d have to ask questions. What would that shape look like? What would that mean? How strong would surface tension
have to be for us to control water? How can we change surface tension? More importantly, what would it look like, illusion or not, what would it be like
if we could shape water? If you place your hands together,
I’ll place this in your hands. Please do not pop it;
otherwise, we’re both getting wet. How magical does that feel? So that everyone can see it. How magical does that feel? Adam: It feels ridiculous. JL: To see it ripple,
to see it wobble, right? Right now, we are rethinking water, and we are wondering. This is not something I knew was possible. There was no magic section at Home Depot where you can pick up
the latest shaping-water manual. Everything I could research
said that this could never be done. It simply did not exist before. But in the end, all it took was just one person
to wonder if it could. Let’s give Adam a big round of applause. (Applause) Now, wonder urges us to ask
those questions how and why. It’s actually the first step in the evolution of science, math,
arts, medicine and everyday life. Wonder changes the world. It makes us challenge what we know. And right now, we need to be doing that
more than ever in this day and age. See, for those of us
that saw the birth of the internet and those of us that love to wonder, we thought we had found the golden goose. But for the next generation,
it’s different. Stephen Hawking pointed it out best. He said, “The greatest enemy
of knowledge is not ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge.” And for the first time in history, parents have to deal with the fact that our teenagers
can actually say they know it all. Because they grew up believing
that in their hands, they have answers to everything. And no one has to wonder any more. Our screwdrivers are obsolete. No one has to wonder
what’s over the horizon. You can find the center of the universe just as fast as you can find
the next Starbucks. And you can do it on the same website. You know, while incredible –
the internet is incredible – the accessibility to information
is really undermining wonder. See, we search a question,
we get an answer, and we move on. And no one’s really challenging it. No one’s really –
everybody looks at the internet like it’s a magical
crystal ball of knowledge. And we’ve become complacent
with whatever its answers are. But I do like pointing out
on this topic right now, “Don’t forget: we gave
the internet its answers.” So how can we expect
to challenge what we know by asking it questions? Wonder about it this way: If the internet were around when we collectively thought
the earth was flat, we would never have been able
to search the true shape of earth on any search engine because all of us
would have known different. We would never have known. See, when we don’t have an answer,
or at least a definitive answer, we wonder. We question the environment;
we question the rules. We wonder if the water
was actually shaped. But when the internet
pumps out an answer to that question, we assume it’s definitive, and we have to remember that the internet
is just a massive library on steroids. That’s assuming any of us
remember what a library is, by the way. Despite all its information, despite all its answers, the library doesn’t think. The internet doesn’t wonder
where the answer came from. It doesn’t challenge what it knows. Search engines don’t determine
what’s right or what’s wrong; they simply give us what’s relevant
to the majority of its users. Search engines give us
the most popular opinion on the subject, and let’s face it, those really revolutionary ideas
don’t start off too popular. Generally, it’s the opposite. Every time you click
that very first result on a search engine, whether the next page is right or wrong, you’ve just reinforced
that popular opinion to the next user. You know, we have to remember
the internet’s a passive technology. We’re the active technology. We have to be insatiably curious with our rules and our answers
in the age of information because looking at
our history of knowledge, we’ve been pretty good at being wrong. Think about it. We thought the earth
was the center of the universe. Until someone questioned it. And then we thought the atom
was the smallest particle in the universe. Until someone questioned that. Now, up until recently,
up until this year, there was no debate
that the speed of light was constant, and up until 10 minutes ago, you thought bringing a magician
to a TED event was a great idea. (Laughter) I think it’s awesome that science
has actually pointed out that most of these wrong ideas
were true at one time. I mean, there was always those
that felt differently, but the idea is that the popular opinion accepted common knowledge
as scientific fact. Now, in all fairness, we weren’t really wrong
to be thinking this way. We were not wrong
to think the earth was flat. It was simply a matter
that our data was limited at the time. Right? Our data was limited. So how do we know
our data isn’t still limited? And the wonderful answer is we don’t. We don’t know the rules. We don’t even know if there are rules. All we can determine from our history is that the only thing separating
the impossible from the possible was the individual that was wondering
about the right question. So we need to bring out
that child-like wonder so that we can see beyond the illusion
of knowledge in the age of information. Because if we really want
to change things – in ourselves, in our community
or in the world – we need to embrace, we need to believe
in those unanswered questions and those impossible dreams. We need to embrace wonder, to ask questions, hundreds of them,
as if we were children. Because unless each and every one of us fills our own voids with those hows,
those whys, those what-ifs, those can-I’s, nothing will change. The world wasn’t shaped by its answers. It was shaped by its questions, and there’s no reason
why that next question can’t come from any of us. Thank you very much. (Applause)


  1. Very good. To loose wonder is to loose magic And the "what if" that makes us grow and has enriched our experience. Great talk Jason. Bravo!!
    a few seconds ago · Like

  2. Thought provoking and wonder-inspiring. As a student at university where the internet is our library, this is joyously refreshing and exciting. Thank you!

  3. It is true that the kids today, armed with all the latest gadgets, have stopped asking deeper questions. They suffer from the illusion of equating information with true knowledge. Whether it is external science, unraveling the mysteries of nature or inner science, exploring the incredible possibilities of higher states of consciousness, this generation is not interested do the hard work. Of course, I realize sweeping generalizations is wrong. Yet it is quite true that most are happy playing with their technology toys and speaking the language of Ellsworth Toohey (antithesis of Howard Roark in Rand's Fountainhead) all style and no substance. Forget deeper questions…most just "cut & paste" what's on Wikipedia. What's really disheartening is not just the absence of curiosity, but the absence of willingness to learn and internalize the existing systems of knowledge and build awareness to ask the right questions.

  4. amazing mind eye opening information. this concept should underpin throught the whole of k to uni education systems

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