When I stand in a lecture room and try to talk knowledgeably to students about the things we call electrons, as I have to do in order to talk about chemistry and how it sustains life, I do admit that ultimately nobody knows what the electrons really are, but such humility does not always go down well with my audience.
'So why are we here sitting listening to you if you don't know what you're talking about?' I have been asked.
'Ah, but what we have gleaned is interesting and useful, but while it is explanatory at one level it is ultimately just description because as much better minds than me have said, in exploring the nature of particles of matter ultimately all that we arrive at are mathematical descriptions of things we do not understand.'
'So you don't understand what you are trying to teach us?'
'That's a fair comment.'
'You feel cheated? You want your money back? But what I can tell you is enlightening to a considerable degree, and is very useful for manipulating and making things, eh... like medicines...'
'And motor cars...'
'And computer games and smart phones and i-pods...'
'And make up,' I once added, looking at an unconvinced and already bored but admittedly well made-up young female.
'Are you trying to be funny?'
And judging from the aggressive tone of the query I realised that I had annoyed a woman, yet again.
But seriously... Recalling the intriguing but ultimately infuriating TV series "Lost", I generally soon end up rather pompously declaring that we are ourselves the real 'Lost' people of planet Earth, the stranded islanders, stumbling from puzzle to puzzle and from each partial enlightenment on to the next baffling aspect of our mysterious predicament.
And what have we discovered? We are creatures composed of interacting particles of matter, yet, nobody knows what matter is, and when we analyse it in depth its seeming solidity vanishes into a world of mysterious quantum forces and fields. We are awed by convincing tales of all the matter of the universe emerging from a cataclysm we call the big bang, but at the point of the big bang our descriptions fail, become meaningless, and return us to a state of incomprehension in face of the 'where did we come from?' question. We present stories of the origins of life that are, in truth, sketchy and untested possibilities. Nobody knows how, or even where in the universe, life began. Our brains are known to sustain the thoughts that let us ponder these things, and we have uncovered wondrous mechanisms that let nerve cells communicate, but we know essentially nothing about what 'thinking' really is, or how consciousness can arise from mere matter. We live out our lives in the belief that we have freewill and responsibility, yet nowhere in our physics, chemistry or biology can we find any mechanism that would actually allow us to be truly free. But, we can communicate wirelessly, walk on the moon, fly round the world and cure or prevent so many diseases; and what we have discovered about what’s going on is fascinating, and useful, but it still leaves us with no clue about the meaning of it all, really.
So here we all are, stumbling around in a vast multi-dimensional puzzle, trying to make some sense of it. Which sounds a bit like fun, when you think of it; and it is.