I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says – “you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimetre, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure.

Also the processes, the fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kins of interesting questions which shows that science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it subtracts.

If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions of what we are, where we are going, what the meaning of the universe is and so on then I think you could become easily dissolusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems…

We are exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world…I can can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing…

I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things….

and this is my favorite:

He was happy with me, I believe. Once, though, when I came back from MIT – I’d been there a few years – he said to me, “Now”, he said, “you’ve become educated about these things and there’s one question I’ve always had that I’ve never understood very well and I’d like to ask you, now that you’ve studied this, to explain it to me,” and I asked him what it was. And he said that he understood that when an atom made a transition from one state to another it emits a particle of light called a photon. I said, “That’s right.”

And he says, “Well, now, is the photon in the atom ahead of time that it comes out, or is there no photon in it so start with?” I says, “There’s no photon in, it’s just that when the electron makes a transition it comes” and he says “Well, where does it come from then, how does it come out?” So I couldn’t say, “The view is that photon numbers aren’t conserved, they’re just created by the motion of the electron.”

I couldn’t try to explain to him something like: the sound that I’m making now wasn’t in me. It’s not like my little boy who when he started to talk, suddenly said that he could no longer say a certain word – the word was “cat” – because his word bag has run out of the word cat. So there’s no word bag that you have inside so that you use up the words as they come out, you just make them as they go along, and in the same sense there was no photon bag in an atom and when the photons come out they didn’t come from somewhere, but I couldn’t do much better.

He was not satisfied with me in the respect that I never was able to explain any of the things that he didn’t understand. So he was unsuccessful, he sent me through all these universities in order to find out these things and he never did find out.

Bill Gates paid to have his lectures at Cornell available to the public and they can be found here.