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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Science and Sequestration

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 fa├žade 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.



Interesting thoughts


In the history of science, there is always a question mark, where a particular invention or discovery came from. It is the dominant culture of the time that claims to being the source of all knowledge. I think knowlege should be seen as a continuum rather than as a set of benchmarks laid down by one individual or society. The problem that you have identified, usurping science for profiteering, although you don't need Laughglin to highlight that, is not a problem of science but of commercialism or in systemic terms that of Capitalism.

Jim Murdochsaid...

I suspect that science has got so complex that it probably feels like magic. Both Carrie and I used to be able to get into the guts of our PCs and tweak them to our hearts' contents but the technology has now passed us by and we're almost frightened to start mucking around with things because we would not be confident fixing them. So I suppose you could say that science makes us nervous but I suspect part of the issue is that we're getting older and everything makes us nervous; this is not the same world we grew up in.

Yes, science is capable of humbling us but I'm not sure that's the same as teaching us modesty. As for doing without the benefits that technology brings I suspect it depends on ones age how one would cope. There were no home computers when I was a kid and I coped. I'd buy more books and I'd visit the library more often but that's about it. A computer is a great research tool for me but that's it. I wrote my first two novels before I had access to the Internet. In many ways I'd be happy to go back. I'd get more writing done.

On the point of identifying valuable knowledge my first thought on that is simply that there has never been such an accumulation of raw data. It really is hard to see the wood for the trees. This is the down side to the Internet, what we have to wade through to get to the good stuff. Is it worth it?

J. C.said...

@szlogolept, I disagree with what you have said in the last sentence of your comment. Science today is too much bounded with commercialism and profiteering, at such an extent that the situation is getting more and more bizarre every day. What it is at stake is the human desire to learn. It is very hard to find a right measure between reasonable and justified methods of sequestration of potentially dangerous knowledge and the one for which is possible to say that it belongs to humankind.

J. C.said...

Jim, thanks for the great comment. I am planning to do a post about Laughlin's book only where I would elaborate my view of the issue.

Jena Islesaid...

During the year 1994 we did not have PC's, we had the manual typewriters where we typed in our grades and computed with a calculator. It was very tedious as we have to type the whole page if we wanted no white correction fluids on our sheets.

Now we have the excel to automatically compute grades. We just type the data and with 2- 6 clicks we get the computed grades for the whole class - no sweat!

There is a downside to advance technology however, those who are not so much familiar with all those computer lingo are "afraid" to tweak things - I am one of them. I don't understand the blog computer language and I'm afraid to tamper with it even when I want something done with my blog. When my computer hangs, I don't know what to do; while I could "fix" the typewriter asap.

I guess, there are advantages and disadvantages in these updated technology, we just have to adjust to them.

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