It is an interesting fact how we take for granted so many of the things that surround us every day, without asking ourselves how we come to have those things here with us in the first place. It would certainly be appropriate for the great electronic manufacturing brands to include some relevant wording on the backs of their magic devices. For example the words "Tribute to Galileo" should be on the back of every cell phone. For the simple reason that that is where they all came from. And maybe also every school and university should bear a plaque in a place of honour on the façade acknowledging a debt of gratitude to the Enlightenment-inspired achievements of the French Revolution. Because that's where they all came from too.
Science still makes a lot of people nervous. Too many people are quick to criticise science and then try to hide from any mention of the subject behind a huge yawn, trying to avoid having to talk about something they find boring. And the daily newspapers in Bosnia, the only ones in the region who still see no need to have a science section, are no better.
Science provides us with proof that it is possible to be constantly running away from something that our everyday lives depend on.
It was thanks to the explosions of supernovae - the eruption of massive stars as much as ten times the size of our Sun - that the creation of the heavier elements with increasingly large numbers of protons, the elements that our bodies are made of, became possible. It is almost impossible to imagine anything more inspiring or romantic than the fact, for whose discovery we have the physicists to thank, that we are all children of the stars, as Michio Kaku would have put it, with bodies made from stardust (and at this point let’s not forget David Bowie either, and Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars). The stars from which we are made exploded many billions of years ago, setting in motion the process of fusion of hydrogen atoms that led to the creation of helium and then the heavier chemical elements, creating the substances required to make life.
The gaze into the depths of the Universe that the Hubble Telescope made possible for us has helped us finally understand how small and yet magnificent we are. The notion enshrined in the myths of antiquity that human beings are as old as the Universe probably tells us something about the problems of the ego but not very much about the reality of how things are.
It seems as if only science is capable of teaching people how to be modest and generous at the same time. Maybe generosity isn't the right word, it is hardly adequate to describe the fact that every year the procedure of vaccination saves the lives of 300,000 children in Nigeria and that this is possible thanks to nature’s trick of evolution, put to use in the process of manufacturing vaccines. A British journalist recently informed us that the number of people whose lives have been saved by vaccines is considerably greater than the number of lives lost in all the cataclysmic wars of the 20th century, and so he christened vaccines “weapons of mass salvation”.
It might be an interesting exercise to try spending a few days without any computers, automobiles, cell phones, aspirins or antibiotics, taking a "Walden"-like vacation from all those things. But you and I are not H.D. Thoreau and it is very doubtful whether you or I would be able to last out the experience, not for two years as he did, but even two days, or even two hours.
The issue of knowledge sequestration, a global problem currently affecting the most technologically advanced countries in the world and consequently everybody else as well, is the subject of a stylish analysis by the Nobel Prize-winner and quantum physicist Robert B. Laughlin in his book “The Crime of Reason”. Laughlin tells us that the greatest repository of capital in today's world is scientific knowledge but unfortunately - or perhaps luckily in some cases - there are a variety of mechanisms that prevent us getting access to it.
Knowledge that has economical value is inevitably vulnerable to sequestration aimed at finding a way to exploiting it or using it to make new discoveries – there are enormous sums of money at stake in this game. The central message of Laughlin’s book (which looks at a wide variety of other issues as well) is that in the developed countries of the world a war is being fought, literally, over knowledge. The inevitable conclusion is that it is the creation, control and management of knowledge, along with the discovery of new ideas, that is the key to the planet's survival and prosperity.
The biggest problem we face is how to identify knowledge that is valuable, in the permanent confusion caused by commercial and legal procedures that in the worst cases frustrate and often deny the most noble of human impulses, the desire to learn. This is happening increasingly frequently even when it is contrary to common sense and challenges the human right to learn, which has no absolute existence and is not legislated for or even mentioned by the laws of even the most progressive countries.
Laughlin compares the ferocity of this conflict with other intractable historical disputes that unfortunately were only resolved by resort to extreme measures such as warfare - slavery and the American Civil War, for example - and he also remarks that with the growth of the Internet we face the paradox of having the capacity to conduct the search for valuable knowledge in the same way that we might look for a needle in a haystack. Absurdities like patenting or making legal claims to the laws of nature - gene sequences or specific mathematical algorithms necessary for software engineering - are already a reality.