I am afraid for my science

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This week we celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Neil Armstrong.  As many have well said (first and foremost himself) his achievement was truly a testament to our spirit of exploration together with our fascination with our universe. We went to the moon and back because of those feelings, even though the government’s motivation was really political.  In all honesty, I do not care if the motivation was political.  We went to the MOON!

Space exploration did not stop there though.  Pioneer, Voyager, Viking, Spirit & Opportunity and more recently Curiosity are worthy representatives of our species.  These and many others have provided invaluable data and magnificent images that inspire and feed our imagination and sense of wonder.

But we are not there ourselves.

I am not going to discuss the relative merits of manned vs unmmaned space exploration.  They both have their value, but after the epic Apollo missions, we have relied on our surrogates for way too long.  We need to correct that.  Sure, we were up there with the space shuttle and we are still there at the international space station. As great as the space shuttle era was, that was not truly space exploration.  It was wonderful that at least we were there though, and I salute all the astronauts that flew on those missions; a lot of good science was done there.  Moreover, I (as well as many others) am especially grateful to those who lost their lives in the last Challenger and Columbia missions, as well as to all others who gave their lives for the dream.

That said, I have a strong feeling that if we ask any astronaut, past, present or hopeful (maybe somebody did that already, I do not know), they would be more than willing to go further.  They want to “be there”.  In a way I am partly relieved that the private sector has taken the proverbial torch and is working to rekindle our true exploration of space, but I really think that this is not enough.  We need to complement this with a public effort.

Well, here’s the thing, one of the reasons why I am afraid for my science is that VERY few politicians have even a rudimentary knowledge of science and technology.  That scares me because in one way or another science is intimately involved with societal issues.  I am sure that you have heard about the unfortunate (I am being kind) comments of a politician about such a sensitive issue as rape.  This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  I do not think I have to tell you all the possible ramifications of this kind of thinking in terms of people’s health.  The scary feeling comes from the realization that for the most part, politicians with decision power know next to nothing about the possible consequences of their choices as far as science is concerned.  This is not only sad, it is dangerous; science may be the key to our survival.

The good news is that we can all help.  How?  A very simple way is by nurturing and supporting true education.  Maybe I am idealistic, but I think that in this way we can create a new kind future politician, with at the very least a healthy respect for nature and the desire to understand it.

In that vein, I am also afraid for my science because sadly, we live in a culture where for the most part, knowledge and education are not valued properly.  We need all kinds of people.  This is the nature of society.  However, in many cases, we overemphasize (is this a word?) on “how fast can I finish?”  I am a scientist, but I am also an educator.  Every day I see people despair when they see themselves working for 4 years to get a college degree and even more for graduate or professional schools.  My response to that invariably is:

Guess what? The next ten years of your life will come and go.  You do not have to do anything about it; in fact, you cannot do anything about it! In ten years you will either say “I wish I did it” or “I am happy I did it”. End of story.

Barring financial, health or real issues, everything else is an excuse.  Is science hard?  Why yes, yes it is, but if you are truly interested you’ll find a way to make it work. This does not only apply to science by the way; this is true for any discipline or trade.

I know that I am preaching now; please bear with me…

I am also afraid for my science because we also live in a society that for the most part, uses the terms “geek” and “nerd” pejoratively (now, this IS a word; I checked).  Why on the good earth are things this way?  Sure, people make fun of geeks and nerds, but:

You want one of those to perform surgery on you if you ever get apendicitis…

You want one of those to properly design the airplane that you fly in…

You want one of those to make the medicines that you take…

You want one of those to properly design the car that you drive…

You even want one of those to come up with the telephone (sorry, smartphone) that you play with…

You will also need a bunch of those to go to, say, the moon.

And we’re back to topic.

No one is entitled to success.  Even past achievements do not entitle us to it. Success comes from hard work and committment; period.  If we want to harvest the fruits of exploration we need to work for it.  We want to feel pride on who we are, no question about that, and again, for that to happen we need to work for it. Recently, we were treated with the successful landing of the Curiosity rover.  That was great, but to me, the greatest thing was to see the scientists and engineers at mission control.  Their enthusiasm was highly contagious!

I want more of that.  We need more of that.

Can you imagine how would we feel when we land on Mars ourselves, when we see a human crew land on the planet that sparked the imagination of so many people?  Even better, even after the initial excitement wears off, the practical benefits of this endeavor keep coming.  We all know how the space program contributed to our daily lives.

I am also afraid for my science because history has told us once and again what happens to societies that shun knowledge.  I don’t want to be afraid anymore

In a perfect world, all nations would cooperate for this goal, but we do not live in a perfect world. Now that’s what scares me the most.

Now, we really need a lot of nerds to fix that, don’t you think?

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12 Comments

  1. I suspect it will take a paradigm shift before we see manned space exploration on a grand scale, either the advent of a space elevator or the commercialisation of asteroids for rare minerals, but you’re right, it all starts with education, and not just teaching kids to read, we need to help adults appreciate how science has reshaped our world for the better.

    Politicians should be required to undergo a basic science course to ensure they have a good grasp of the fundamentals so they’re better able to deal with the issues that arise during their tenure.

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