3. Why Is Science Important?

Written July 2010

( This essay is adapted from one which was published in Transit, the magazine of Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society, in September 2010. )

Here in the UK, someone recently began an internet campaign to encourage youngsters to take an interest in science. He set up a web site, on which he asked scientists and science writers to write short essays on “Why is Science Important?” To me, the most appalling thought of all is that it’s actually necessary to ask such a question! This essay is my attempt to answer it.

Last weekend, as I write this, I spent a day hiking in the Peak District. ( For non-British readers, that’s a beautiful area of English countryside. ) I stopped to eat my packed lunch at a spot which could justifiably be described as the middle of nowhere – high on a ridge, near an old quarry, where the nearest farmhouse, let alone village, was a couple of kilometres away. Yet from this spot, I was able not only to phone my dad, over 100 miles away , but also to send a text message to my girlfriend, who lives in Kenya!
“So what?”, you may be thinking. Why am I bothering to mention this? Today, we all take mobile phones for granted; indeed, those younger than about 20 have never known a world without them.
Well, it got me thinking about that question - “Why is Science Important?”.
As I’ve lamented before, we now have a society in which the majority of people have absolutely no knowledge of, or interest in, science of any kind, or anything remotely intellectual. Many lack such fundamental knowledge as the cause of the seasons, or how to tell directions by the Sun – and even more dismayingly, seem to care even less.
We have an entire culture, among younger people, in which it’s seen as “cool” to be thick, and in which those who do have intellectual interests are invariably regarded as “geeks”, “nerds”, or whatever is the latest derisory word for the opposite of “cool”. Due to this kind of peer pressure, many youngsters may actually be deterred from pursuing intellectual studies or hobbies.
Nor is this restricted to youngsters. I’ve even heard of cases of parents discouraging their own children. On Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, a commenter recently told a horrifying story. When visiting the home of some family acquaintances, he found that their teenage son was fascinated by astronomy; on learning that the guest was an astronomer, the lad began asking him a lot of questions – but then his father butted in with a sneering “Who cares?”. According to the commenter, this idiot and his wife practically boasted about having almost zero interest in anything beyond beer, TV chat shows and gossiping about their neighbours, as if it was something to be proud of – and apparently wanted their son to grow up the same!
So now to my point. To answer that question, “Why is Science Important?”, we need look no further than those handy little devices which most of us now carry in our pockets every day! Is it not an amazing thought, that even while on a hillside miles from anywhere, I can send a message, in a matter of seconds, to someone on another continent – by means of a device small enough to hold in the palm of my hand?
Those very same people, who dismiss science and all intellectual pursuits with “Who cares”, would be lost without their mobile phones, their iPods, and their Playstations on which to play their silly mindless games. And most ironically of all, even those who believe in astrology, subscribe to absurd “conspiracy theories”, or believe that the Earth is only 6000 years old, happily use computers and the internet to propagate their anti-reality nonsense!
As for the generation who have never known a world without mobile phones, PCs and iPods – it doesn’t even seem to occur to them that there ever was a world without those things, and that someone, at some point in time, had to invent them!
Frankly, I find this more baffling than anything. You could apply the argument of “never known a world without [ insert appropriate technology ]” to any generation of the last century and longer! I personally never knew a world without cars, electric lighting or ( landline! ) telephones, and from as early an age as I can remember, my parents had a TV set – albeit black and white! But from a very early age, I was not only perfectly aware that there had been a world without those things, but had a pretty extensive knowledge of who invented many of them, and when. That was the sort of “general knowledge” which schoolboys learned in those days – often from books with such titles as The Bumper Book for Boys, which nearly all of us owned. ( Sex equality was in its infancy in those days; boys never knew what was in the equivalent books for girls, and vice versa! ) By the age of about eight or nine, I knew, for example, that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and that the Wright Brothers built the first aeroplane in 1903. And I was quite familiar with such things as penny farthing bicycles, biplanes and the Model T Ford, despite never actually having seen any of them. But mention any of those people or things to the average youngster today, and I suspect you would be met with a look as blank as the paper on which they have never written a letter.
( The American writer Harlan Ellison once gave a talk to a group of students, in which he mentioned some examples of past technology. When he mentioned listening to music on old-fashioned vinyl records, he was met with a sea of blank faces; none of his audience had ever seen a record, nor even knew what one was! He then told them about when he started off as a young writer, and his hands used to ache from spending hours at a time with a mechanical typewriter; one student actually asked him, “Why didn’t you use a computer?” I kid you not!!!!
I told this story to a friend in his 30’s, who has a 6-year-old daughter. He conceded that such thoughts had never occurred to him until that moment – but immediately resolved that he would show his daughter a record, and other examples of obsolete technology, and ensure that she doesn’t grow up in such a state of ignorance. )
So what makes all of these marvellous things possible? Why, science, of course! You could argue that it’s engineers who invent practical devices – but they are simply applying the principles which have previously been discovered by means of pure scientific research.
Going back to the example with which I began; just think of all the science which led to the humble mobile phone… First, the discovery of electricity in the mid 19th Century. Then the invention of the telephone itself ( 134 years ago! ); the discovery of electromagnetic waves; Marconi’s first use of radio waves to transmit signals; the invention of successive generations of electronics technology – first vacuum tubes, then transistors, then semiconductors and microcircuits, and the miniaturisation which the latter made possible. And finally, of course, the fantastic advances in computer technology within a few short decades. ( How’s this for a thought; the phone in your pocket has thousands of times more memory and processing power than the computers which enabled the Apollo astronauts to land on the Moon! )
Another example… At the start of this piece, I mentioned my girlfriend in Kenya. Well, it’s due to the physicists who discovered the principles of aerodynamics, and the genius of Sir Frank Whittle, who invented the jet engine, that we now have a world in which it’s possible for a person to have a girlfriend or boyfriend thousands of kilometres away on another continent!
Once again, those same people, who are so dismissive of science, take it for granted that they can board a plane and fly to, say, the Greek Islands for their holidays. But many of them wouldn’t be able to show you, on a map of the world, the country to which they were going – and don’t even understand such a simple concept as why they have to put their watches forward a couple of hours…
Finally, there are those who whine about spaceflight being “a scandalous waste of money” – while happily watching their weekly football on satellite TV…
So the next time you encounter someone with a “Who cares?” attitude to science, try getting them to think a little about what their comfortable life would be like without it.

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