“Did you hear? They’ve invented [insert scientific breakthrough here]!”
People love science. They love to read about it over the breakfast table, love to shake their heads and smile as they cry a hearty, ‘Whatever will those eggheads think of next?’
They even enjoy the act of decrying an experiment that is seemingly fruitless, morally-corrupt, or downright spiteful.
The ‘ear on a mouse’s back’ effect is a prime example of how, when taken out of context, most scientific research appears to be the result of some deep-seated ill-intent, or directionless bastardisation of nature – irrespective of the fact that such research underlies every advance in technology that society takes for granted as a natural maturation of existing gadgetry.
The manner in which science is reported certainly does conjure up images in the mind’s eye of two white-coated malcontents standing around a lab with a slab of funding in their research budget with nothing to do when, suddenly, their eyes light up, they glance from one another to a nearby lab-mouse, to one another, to the lab-mouse, and evil smiles blemish upon their lips.
And therein lies the core issue.
We’ve all heard that same word used to kick off a discovery story. If you’re a techy, scientist, or even marginally up to date with the times, you probably hear it far too often for comfort in the news:
Nameless, faceless scientists. Out there in their labs, with the white coats and beakers, doing all that Science! Behind closed doors, in gloomy corridors. Underground, probably, with equally-faceless henchmen guarding the door
This betrays an inherent disassociation between the public and the scientific community, which has been spreading ever more over the past century. For scores of decades – centuries, even – science was held aloft as the crowning jewel of mankind’s achievement. the Victorians’ championing of Galvanism being just one example; the discovery of radioactivity, another. It was obvious that electricity would cure all mankind’s woes and elevate our species to unseen heights (indeed, it has done just that, but in subtler fashions than expected in the first instance; think Frankenstein, written at the height of galvanic hype). It was obvious that radioactivity could cure all ills, and that brushing your teeth with Radium and chewing gum that would make a Geiger Counter out-scream any banshee was the way to go. That the way of the future. The world was convinced that the elixir of life, the essence of what it is to seek physical betterment, lay in science’s bosom.
Yet, it seems that over time, as technology has advanced at a headlong pace and become every bit as complicated as the underlying theories, people’s love has taken on a detached vagueness.
Perhaps this can be credited to the sheer complexity of the issue. Whilst it’s not strictly true to say that science was simpler in times gone by, it can be said that Classical Mechanics is more relatable and intuitive than the macabre absurdities of the Quantum world. Macroscopic biology, such as that described by the Origin of Species, is simply easier to relate to than the amino-acid-chain ridden slab of incomprehensibility that is modern microbiology and genetics. The same, indeed, can be said for the world of Chemistry, as the subject tumbles into a sea of unpronounceable formulas, budding all the while into ever-more obscure sub-fields.
Being able to draw on experience in order to relate, and therefore understand, infinitely increased the immediate appeal of science. Technology and gadgetry was comprehensible in at least some fashion to the average person not so long ago. This is not the case today. And so the face of the everyday citizen has become a stranger to the face of science.
Perhaps that’s a long-winded way of saying something incredibly simple, but those few examples do lend credence to the idea that there is a limit to what the average citizen of western civilisation is willing to learn about anything – regardless of how important it may be to explaining the nature of their existence, or how large an impact it has on every aspect of their lives.
It’s entirely possible that this is merely a symptom of the way our culture is structured. It certainly seems so with regard to mathematics; in the UK, it’s entirely acceptable in social arenas to admit that you ‘just don’t get maths’, and everyone has a good laugh about the futility of the most vital, ubiquitous, ancient, and useful study known to man. Meanwhile, admitting any other kind of ignorance will have you laughed into the gutter.
As this manner of selective ignorance is by no means endemic in many places elsewhere in the world, it seems sensible to say that the kind of separation we’re seeing between the public and scientific spheres is one entirely down to the way we’re raised, how our culture has drawn the lines. And, that it is, in principle, entirely unnecessary – and reversible.
Why would I argue for such a change in attitude? Why does it matter whether the average person understands modern science in the slightest? Who cares? As long as it works, who cares?
The answer, of course, is that nobody should care. There’s no obligation. Science holds no sway above other fields of study in terms of exploring the world; it’s just another channel of discovery.
Yet, modern science – based firmly in the realm of quantification and empiricism – has proven, in its short life (relative to that of religion and philosophy), that it simply surpasses its predecessors in terms of how it can change our lives, how it can elevate us as a species; how it has the potential to make us more than we are. And, it seems, as religion quietly slips from the face of the Earth and secularism is set to soon reign supreme, that our civilisation does care about science.
In just a few centuries, humanity has been elevated to a level that would have seemed divine to our ancestors. But somehow, people have come to expect a defined course that some higher power has laid out for us to follow. That science must have a direction; a singular route that, if followed, will inevitably lead to ultimate truth.
Perhaps this is why research is so often pulled up as being pointless, or wasteful.
But the truth is that batteries don’t just happen to get more efficient with time; cancer-cures don’t come together of their own accord, with hundreds of labs working together to forge a master-key, with it being only a matter of time and money before it’s complete; super-materials, vaccines, ingenious revelations – none just accrue as time goes on.
Science advances in great lurches. Indeed, the whole lumbering leviathan can be upturned, gutted, and reconstituted in a newer and ever-more fabulous form overnight. That is the nature of the beast.
Revelations, for the most part, come from nowhere; from obscurity; from poorly-funded people tinkering with something that seems entirely unrelated to anything of any consequence. It’s happening today, even. Arguably the biggest phenomenon in the public conscience with regard to science of late is the world of particle physics, and its hunt for the Higgs Boson.
Whilst this pursuit seems to make more than most smile and cheer those eggheads on, the kind of fanaticism seems born not of appreciation for what’s being done, but for the vague sense of greatness engendered by the pursuit itself; the public enjoys the concept of something big being done, something that involves big machines and a lot of money. Surely that’s where the next big gadget will come from! A great honking particle-collider!
Yet the true advances have come from the quieter parts of such an endeavour. The internet fell out of particle-physics, yet it did so not on the collider-floor, but behind the scenes, after the event, when data-analysts across the world were crunching the numbers. Recent revelations in medical physics have been made due to the research into laser technology made when constructing the collider – but, again, that research was all about efficiency; coming not from the pursuit of the Higgs itself.
Pure research is the key to discovery. There is no path laid out before us.
Science drops golden nuggets in its wake as it strives for ultimate truth. It doesn’t seek them out; they come about as a consequence of it.
And, driving that great machine, are people – just people. Not a shady cabal of sneering lab-coats. Not a ‘they’, separate from the rest of society. People, honest and true, with no intention in their hearts but to tease open nature’s wonders, and marvel at their beauty.