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In Praise of Science and Technology by Carl Sagan

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the largely self-educated British physicist Michael Faraday was visited by his monarch, Queen Victoria. Among Faraday’s many celebrated discoveries, some of obvious and immediate practical benefit, were more arcane findings in electricity and magnetism, then little more than laboratory curiosities. In the traditional dialogue between heads of state and heads of laboratories, the Queen asked Faraday of what use such studies were, to which he is said to have replied, “Madam, of what use is a baby? Faraday had an idea that there might someday be something practical in electricity and magnetism. In the same period the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell set down four mathematical equations, based on the work of Faraday and his experimental predecessors, relating electrical charges and currents with electric and magnetic fields. The equations exhibited a curious lack of symmetry, and this bothered Maxwell. There was something unaesthetic about the equations as then known, and to improve the symmetry Maxwell proposed that one of the equations should have an additional term, which he called the displacement current.

His argument was fundamentally intuitive; there was certainly no experimental evidence for such a current. Maxwell’s proposal had astonishing consequences. The corrected Maxwell equations implied the existence of electromagnetic radiation, encompassing gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared and radio. They stimulated Einstein to discover Special Relativity. Faraday and Maxwell’s laboratory and theoretical work together have led, one century later, to a technical revolution on the planet Earth.

Electric lights, telephones, phonographs, radio, television, refrigerated trains making fresh produce available far from the farm, cardiac pacemakers, hydroelectric power plants, automatic fire alarms and sprinkler systems, electric trolleys and subways, and the electronic computer are a few devices in the direct evolutionary line from the arcane laboratory puttering of Faraday and the aesthetic dissatisfaction of Maxwell, staring at some mathematical squiggles on a piece of paper. Many of the most practical applications of science have been made in this serendipitous and unpredictable way.

No amount of money would have sufficed in Victoria’s day for the leading scientists in Britain to have simply sat down and invented, let us say, television. Few would argue that the net effect of these inventions was other than positive. I notice that even many young people who are profoundly disenchanted with Western technological civilization, often for good reason, still retain a passionate fondness for certain aspects of high technology-for example, high-fidelity electronic music systems.

Science and technology may be in part responsible for many of the problems that face us today -but largely because public understanding of them is desperately inadequate (technology is a tool, not a panacea), and because insufficient effort has been made to accommodate our society to the new technologies. Considering these facts, I find it remarkable that we have done as well as we have. Luddite alternatives can solve nothing. More than one billion people alive today owe the margin between barely adequate nutrition and starvation to high agricultural technology.

Probably an equal number have survived, or avoided disfiguring, crippling or killing diseases because of high medical technology. Were high technology to be abandoned, these people would also be abandoned. Science and technology may be the cause of some of our problems, but they are certainly an essential element in any foreseeable solution to those same problems-both nationally and planet wide. For each problem we have uncovered, such as the effect of halocarbons on the ozonosphere, might there not be another dozen lurking around the corner?

It is therefore an astonishing fact that nowhere in the federal government, major universities or private research institutes is there a single highly competent, broadly empowered and adequately funded research group whose function it is to seek out and defuse future catastrophes resulting from the development of new technologies. The establishment of such research and environmental assessment organizations will require substantial political courage if they are to be effective at all. Technological societies have a tightly knit industrial ecology, an interwoven network of economic assumptions.

It is very difficult to challenge one thread in the network without causing tremors in all. Any judgment that a technological development will have adverse human consequences implies a loss of profit for someone. The DuPont Company, the principal manufacturers of halocarbon propellants, for example, took the curious position in public debates that all conclusions about halocarbons destroying the ozonosphere were “theoretical. ” They seemed to be implying that they would be prepared to stop halocarbon manufacture only after the conclusions were tested experimentally-that is, when the ozonosphere was destroyed.

There are some problems where inferential evidence is all that we will have; where once the catastrophe arrives it is too late to deal with it. Similarly, the Department of Energy can be effective only if it can maintain a distance from vested commercial interests, if it is free to pursue new options even if such options imply loss of profits for selected industries. The same is clearly true in pharmaceutical research, in the pursuit of alternatives to the internal-combustion engine, and in many other technological frontiers.

I do not think that the development of new technologies should be placed in the control of old technologies; the temptation to suppress the competition is too great. If we Americans live in a free-enterprise society, let us see substantial independent enterprise in all of the technologies upon which our future may depend. Clearly, there are more technological projects now possible than we can afford. Some of them may be extremely cost-effective but may have such large start-up costs as to remain impractical.

Others may require a daring initial investment of resources, which will work a benevolent revolution in our society. Such options have to be considered extremely carefully. The most prudent strategy calls for combining low-risk/moderate-yield and moderate- risk/high-yield endeavors. For such technological initiatives to be understood and supported, significant improvements in public understanding of science and technology are essential. We are thinking beings. Our minds are our distinguishing characteristic as a species.

We are not stronger or swifter than many other animals that share this planet with us. We are only smarter. In addition to the immense practical benefit of having a scientifically literate public, the contemplation of science and technology permits us to exercise our intellectual faculties to the limits of our capabilities. Science is an exploration of the intricate, subtle and awesome universe we inhabit. Those who practice it know, at least on occasion, a rare kind of exhilaration that Socrates said was the greatest of human pleasures. It is a communicable pleasure.

To facilitate informed public participation in technological decision making, to decrease the alienation too many citizens feel from our technological society, and for the sheer joy that comes from knowing a deep thing well, we need better science education, a superior communication of its powers and delights. The most effective agents to communicate science to the public are television, motion pictures and newspapers-where the science offerings are often dreary, inaccurate, ponderous, grossly caricatured or (as with much Saturday-morning commercial television programming for children) hostile to science.

There have been astonishing recent findings on the exploration of the planets, the role of small brain proteins in affecting our emotional lives, the collisions of continents, the evolution of the human species (and the extent to which our past prefigures our future), the ultimate structure of matter (and the question of whether there are elementary particles or an infinite regress of them), the attempt to communicate with civilizations on planets of other stars, the nature of the genetic code (which determines our heredity and makes us cousins to all the other plants and animals on our planet), and the ultimate questions of the origin, nature and fate of life, worlds and the universe as a whole.

Recent findings on these questions can be understood by any intelligent person. Why are they so rarely discussed in the media, in schools, in everyday conversation? Civilizations can be characterized by how they approach such questions, how they nourish the mind as well as the body. The modern scientific pursuit of these questions represents an attempt to acquire a generally accepted view of our place in the cosmos; it requires open-minded creativity, tough-minded skepticism and a fresh sense of wonder. As in the example of Faraday and Maxwell-the encouragement of pure research may be the most reliable guarantee available that we will have the intellectual and technical herewithal to deal with the practical problems facing us. Only a small fraction of the most able youngsters enter scientific careers. I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students. Something happens in the school years to discourage their interest (and it is not mainly puberty); we must understand and circumvent this dangerous discouragement. No one can predict where the future leaders of science will come from. Many of the problems facing us may be soluble, but only if we are willing to embrace brilliant, daring and complex solutions. Such solutions require brilliant, daring and complex people.

I believe that there are many more of them around-in every nation, ethnic group and degree of affluence-than we realize. The training of such youngsters must not, of course, be restricted to science and technology; indeed, the compassionate application of new technology to human problems requires a deep understanding of human nature and human culture, a general education in the broadest sense. We are at a crossroads in human history. Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising. We are the first species to have taken our evolution into our own hands. For the first time we possess the means for intentional or inadvertent self-destruction.

We also have, I believe, the means for passing through this stage of technological adolescence into a long-lived, rich and fulfilling maturity for all the members of our species. But there is not much time to determine to which fork of the road we are committing our children and our future. Carl Sagan is as well known for his literary as for his scientific accomplishments. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for The Dragons of Eden), he has also received the NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for distinguished public service. Excerpt from “Broca’s Brain” by Carl Sagan, published by Random House, New York, NY 10022, ©1979. ISBN 0-394-50169-1. Hardcover 314p.

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