February 22, 2011

The Scientist and the Ivory Tower

The Tevatron is going to close. The Superconducting Supercollider never came to fruition. Remember the scare when the LHC began running — all that talk about how black holes might get created at the LHC that might accidentally devour the planet.

It’s commonplace to hear all and sundry pontificating about the benefits and harms of science to society. Religious people somehow feel automatically qualified to interpret god’s intentions and talk casually about the universe.

Scientists however are a different species. They like to be humble and polite and mostly profess ignorance about much of the world and indeed, much of the broad tapestry of science. This is quite admirable of course and in tune with the spirit of science. But this creates a vacuum. And that vacuum is more often than not filled by opportunistic egomaniacs.

It’s in this context that one must look at the lives of a few exceptional scientists. A few names stand out easily: Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, etc. This tribe is fortunately growing.

When one scientist does something such as write a popular science book explaining some of the arcane topics of science to a non-technical audience and in the process dilutes some of the complexities of science, other professional scientists often attack the popular science writer cum scientist rather witheringly. This can have many reasons though some of it might be plain envy as some of the names mentioned above are recognizable names the world over which is something one can’t say about most Nobel laureates.

I believe it’s the right path to take for scientists to try and partake in the ongoing discourse — be there in the public square as it were rather than retreating to their laboratories and ivory towers.

After all, scientific endeavor is a part of what we do as a species. It’s as much a part as engineering and technology and religion and politics and literature and cultural revolutions and everything else.

As it happens, science has reached a point today where it necessarily has to confront some deeply held beliefs on the one hand and makes extraordinary demands on scarce financial resources on the other.

Talk of stem cell research. Clearly, the broader society has to be part of the dialogue and has to develop some broad understanding about the advantages versus the overblown risks. To argue that stem cell research is immoral and against religion would be similar to saying that we should not go beyond the atmosphere into space because that’s god’s terrain — there’s where god lives, where heaven is and we should not dare to enter such holy places. Luckily, that argument was not made in the early days of space exploration — or who knows, may be someone might have made that argument but mankind was able to persuade itself that that was an enterprise worth pursuing. And today we have made preliminary visits to most of the planets in our Solar System. And we continue to expand our knowledge by mounting ever more challenging planetary missions. Not that many people in the world care much about these things, but we have crafts in orbit around Saturn. We sent a lander to Titan — one of Saturn’s moons. Extraordinary achievements. New Horizons is on its way to Pluto. And it’s a tribute to the persistence and perseverance of the scientific community that they were able to persuade the U.S. Congress to approve the necessary budget. And this kind of big science projects are exactly why scientists must get out of their ivory towers and explain what they are doing to the public. Otherwise, why will the public bother with these projects? And if the public is not bothered, is there any likelihood that politicians will bother?

In spite of all that is said about politicians in democratic societies then, the fact that NASA remains the leader in space exploration shows that in the U.S. at least, politicians show the requisite foresight.

But of course it’s far from enough. As I mentioned at the beginning, the SSC project in Texas got cancelled for lack of money and the Tevatron is going to close in the near future. Luckily, European nations have rallied together to take the next step in this arena of vital fundamental research.

There are many other areas of science that surely suffer for lack of funding. And better public awareness might have resulted in better funding. Fusion research seems to be progressing with a global effort. Imagine what the benefits would be if and when we are able to have a viable working fusion reactor. Clearly, the research that is ongoing is insufficient.

Look at the space exploration. The U.S. Air Force is luckily keeping track of near Earth objects that might impact Earth. What is the value of this effort? A large asteroid impact might lead to the extinction of our species just as such an event led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. And yet, how many nations are bothered to keep an eye out for any rogue objects out there. Clearly, a failure of scientists to communicate to the public about the grave danger lurking in space.
What about manned spaceflights to Mars? A project that will probably cost more money than any other single project ever undertaken in the history of humanity. But, so what? Pyramids would never have been built if men had thought then that they had never been built before and so we can’t build them. Exploring the planets and setting human footprints on them is clearly the next step in the long history of exploration for our species. We have spent the last few thousands of years in exploring our planet mostly by traversing the length and breadth of the planet through the great oceans. Traversing the great ocean of space is next. What are the benefits? Ultimately, we will learn to terraform Mars and we will learn how to colonize other planets. In time, our technology will become smart enough to build starships that will take humans to planets around other nearby stars.

And yes, that leads to the other great project which is getting insufficient funding. We are just beginning to detect planets around other stars. What a time of fundamental changes in our perceptions about our place in the universe. What theoreticians have always said is coming to fruition with observational confirmation. What is needed is more funding to build great space telescopes that will enable us to observe these extrasolar planets directly rather than having to infer about their existence from the gravitational tug they exert on their home stars.
All in all, what a great time to be alive! Science has enabled us to make such wonderful progress and yet unfortunately, the public is mostly in the dark about the aims, achievements, and hopes of science. We desperately need Carl Sagan today!

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