Astronomer Royal Martin Rees: We are in a race between science education and disaster

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees: We are in a race between science education and disaster

The word “scientist” still conjures up an image of Albert Einstein lookalike — an unsupported figure (usually male and elderly) — or else a young nerd. Now, of course, there is much more racial and gender diversity among scientists, though still not enough.

But even in earlier centuries scholars were not of the same pattern. Consider, for example, two of the largest: Newton and Darwin. Newton’s mental powers were indeed “beyond scale”: when asked how he was able to solve such profound problems, he said “by constantly thinking over them”. He was lonely and solitary as a youth; vain and vengeful in his later years. Darwin, on the contrary, was a pleasant and likable person, and modest in his self-appraisal. “I have a fair share of ingenuity,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and of common sense or judgment, such as any fairly successful lawyer or physician must possess, but not, I believe, in any higher degree.”

Scientists have collectively transformed our world. Without their insights, we would be deprived of the everyday advantages that make our lives different from those of our ancestors—electricity, health care, transportation, computers, and the Internet. But continued progress raises deep concerns. Who should have access to the “trust” of our personal genetic code? How might life extension affect society? Shall we build? nuclear power plantsor wind farms, if we want to leave the lights on? Should we use more insecticides, or plant genetically modified crops? Should the law allow “designer babies?” Will we accept the machine’s decisions on matters that are important to us?

Through his reply to COVID-19the scientific community was our salvation—through an urgent worldwide effort to develop and deploy vaccines, combined with honest attempts to keep the public informed and acknowledge uncertainty.

This globe-spanning plague offered scientists unprecedented public prominence. But there is a scientific component to most health, energy, climate and environmental policies. Yet if democratic debate is to rise above mere sloganeering, everyone needs a greater “feel” for science to avoid being misled by propaganda and bad statistics.

Scientific discoveries are of sufficient intrinsic interest to be part of our culture. Moreover, science is the only culture that is truly global: protons, proteins and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru. Science must transcend all barriers of nationality. And it should cover all faiths. It is a real cultural deprivation to fail to consider the complex web of life on which we all depend—the chain of emergent complexities leading from the “big bang” to the stars, planets, biospheres, and human brains capable of contemplating the wonder and mystery of it all this.

Of course, science certainly doesn’t have to be “relevant” to be interesting. It’s hard to think of anything less relevant than space and dinosaurs – but nothing in science fascinates young children more.

Discovering new “laws of nature” requires dedicated talent, even genius. But – importantly – understanding their essence is not too challenging. Most of us appreciate music even if we can’t compose it or even perform it. Similarly, the key ideas of science can be accessed and enjoyed by almost anyone – if they are conveyed using non-technical words and simple images.

I feel really fortunate that my special subject, astronomy, has a positive and non-threatening public image and attracts wide interest. I have long enjoyed public speaking and writing. Indeed, I would enjoy my research less if I could only discuss it with fellow specialists. Moreover, I feel that my research benefits from this public engagement: the professional risk of scientists is that they focus so obsessively on minutia and technical details that they forget that elucidating the “big picture” makes their efforts worthwhile.

Of course, science certainly doesn’t have to be “relevant” to be interesting. It’s hard to think of anything less relevant than space and dinosaurs – but nothing in science fascinates young children more. We need to maintain and expand this enthusiasm – which is so often lost in high school.

Some familiar questions are more disturbing than phenomena far out in space.

What about the battalions of micro-Newtons and micro-Darwins who are professional scientists today? Scientists are thought to think in a special way – to follow what is called the ‘scientific method’. This belief should be downplayed. It would be more accurate to say that scientists follow the same rational style of reasoning as (for example) lawyers or detectives in categorizing phenomena, forming hypotheses, and testing evidence.

(Related [and indeed damaging] the misconception is the attitude that there is something particularly “elite” about the quality of their thought. “Academic ability” is one facet of a much broader concept of intellectual ability – possessed in equal measure by top journalists, lawyers, engineers and politicians. The truly great environmentalist EO Wilson claims to be effective in some scientific fields, it’s actually best not to be too bright. He doesn’t underestimate the insights and eureka moments that interweave [albeit rarely] the working life of scientists. But as a world expert on tens of thousands of ant species, Wilson’s research involves decades of hard work: armchair theorizing isn’t enough. So there is a risk of boredom. And he is indeed right that those with short attention spans—with the “mind of a grasshopper”—can find happier (though less rewarding) work as “millisecond traders” on Wall Street or the like.)

And there is no justification for the snobbery of “pure” over “applied” work. Using a scientific concept for practical purposes can be more challenging than the original discovery. A favorite cartoon of my engineer friends shows two beavers looking up at a huge hydroelectric dam. One beaver says to the other, “I didn’t actually build it, but it was my idea.”

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Strange as it may seem, some familiar problems are more perplexing than phenomena far out in space. Astronomers have detected ripples in space from two black holes colliding together a billion light-years away – they can describe this amazingly exotic and distant event in some detail. In contrast, experts are still confused about the everyday things we all care about—diet and childcare, for example. When I was young, milk and eggs were good; a decade later we were warned to avoid them because of cholesterol – but today they’re OK again (consumed in moderation).

These examples alone show that science has open borders. And also that the “glamorous” frontiers of science – the very small – particle physics – and the very large – space – are less challenging than the very complex. Human beings are the most complex known things in the universe – the smallest insect is more complex than an atom or a star and holds deeper mysteries.

A typical field advances in waves interspersed with periods of relative stagnation. And those who change their focus mid-career often bring a new perspective.

Finally, some advice for students considering a career in science. The limits of our understanding have advanced so far that it is not possible to be a know-it-all like Benjamin Franklin: those who venture into research must specialize. You should choose projects that suit your skills and tastes (for fieldwork? For computing? For high-fidelity experiments? For working with huge data sets? And so on). And also decide whether you prefer the teamwork inherent in projects involving spacecraft or particle accelerators – or whether you prefer to be a loner (like the two UK-based Russians, Andrei Geim and Konstatin Novoselov, whose discovery of the wonder material ‘graphene ” ” extremely required a roll of scotch tape!) Also, it’s especially nice to enter a field where things are progressing quickly—where you have access to new techniques, more powerful computers, or larger data sets. Then the experience of older colleagues it’s heavily discounted.

And one more thing: only geniuses (or geeks) go straight for the biggest and most fundamental problems. You need to multiply the importance of the problem by the probability of solving it and maximize this product. Ambitious scientists should not venture into, for example, the unification of the cosmos and the quantum, although this is clearly one of the intellectual peaks we strive to reach; they must realize that grand challenges in cancer research and in brain science must be tackled piecemeal, not head-on.

But, of course, there is no need to stick “all your life” to the same field of science – nor to spend your entire career as a researcher. A typical field advances in waves interspersed with periods of relative stagnation. And those who change their focus mid-career often bring a new perspective.

In addition, scientists have special responsibilities outside the laboratory. They should not be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas. They should try to encourage benign side effects – commercial or otherwise. They must oppose unethical or threatening applications of their work and alert policymakers when appropriate. They should engage with the media and campaigning groups – with the aim of catalysing better informed debate.

Great examples from the past are the atomic scientists who developed nuclear weapons during World War II. Their fate had given them a central role in history. Although many were relieved to return to peacetime academic pursuits, the ivory tower was no sanctuary for them. They continued as engaged citizens, promoting efforts to control the power they helped unleash.

When competing theories do battle, there is only one winner (or perhaps none). Decisive evidence can sometimes solve the problem; in other cases, an idea gains only gradual ascendancy: alternative views are marginalized until their leading proponents die. In general, the more remarkable a claim, the more skeptical it is appropriate to be. As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Sometimes an individual is justified. We’re all glad to see this happen – such cases are, but rarer than the popular press would have us believe. But it would be a welcome antidote to institutional “groupthink” if there were more independent scientists with professional expertise—who, for example, have amassed enough wealth through high-tech startups to be self-sustaining.

There is a special obligation on those in academia and the self-employed to engage with the ethical and prudential dilemmas that science confronts us with; they have more freedom than those employed in civil service or industry (genetics and robotics, in particular, are advancing at a rapid pace, rightly causing public concern). In addition, professors have the special opportunity to influence students.

It is heartening to see more activists among the young – not surprising as they can expect to live until the end of the century. Their commitment gives reason for optimism. Let’s hope that many of them will become scientists – and true citizens of the world.

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