Behind the Cover: What We Cannot Know

Maths is not our strong point. Nor is science. As you may suspect, we at 4th Estate are more comfortable with words than with formulas. But, What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge by Marcus du Sautoy is one of those books that makes us feel as though we can actually understand a subject that we’ve been grappling with for years. Another thing that we here in Marketing would like to know more about is cover art. So, we’ve asked Jonny Pelham, the designer of What We Cannot Know, to tell us about the artwork that encases du Sautoy’s thought-provoking expedition to the furthest reaches of modern science.

What were your first points of inspiration for the What We Cannot Know cover?

The editor, Louise Haines, forwarded me the book proposal as there was no manuscript, so that was my primary source material. I was really intrigued and I ended up making loads of notes, but there wasn’t a lot to work from at that stage.

On a more personal note, I’m a big fan of the Detroit electro group Drexcyia (and their associated projects Dopplereffekt, Arpanet, Der Zyklus etc.) and always loved the opaque science-fetishism of their track titles and album artwork. I’ve also always been terrible at science and maths, so I kind of used their work as a way to orientate myself within a system of knowledge that I know very little about.


Could you describe the creative process for this cover?

My process is fairly fluid but will almost always include periods of research, writing down and sketching every idea that occur to me, and occasionally casting about in my tumblr favourites for other ideas I can steal. For this cover I was mainly interested in hiding or obscuring things, and that formed the core of all the designs I produced.

Did you consider any other designs?

A couple of designs were considered, one involving a Calabi Yau manifold and another that played on the idea of gaps in knowledge, but they were both thought to be too oblique.




Why was this cover the one chosen?

Because it was more colourful than this one:


Why the seven strips of colour?

Marcus suggested putting a seven pointed star on the cover to represent the seven edges of knowledge he identifies in the book. My initial experiments with the star somewhat predictably ended up looking like John Dee’s Sigillum Dei Aemaeth (below), an incredible chart which apparently allowed mortals to talk to gods and angels. Whilst it’s a compelling image, it felt like entirely the wrong kind of symbolism to be evoking for a popular science book, and I decided it made far more sense to simply represent the edges as edges.


The colours could represent the visible spectrum of light (ie. what is observable) or the dazzling sense of discovery and knowledge or they could represent a book’s need to stand out amongst a crowded bookshelf. Who knows!?


Answers and artwork provided by Jonny Pelham

What We Cannot Know is published by 4th Estate on Thursday 19th of May

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