Science and Peace

This has been an interesting year for the Nobel Prize. Recognizing contributions to the world in areas like chemistry, physics, biology, literature, and even peace, the prize is awarded once per year to up to two lucky individuals in a given field. This year, the prize in physics was awarded to Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg for their research into a unique magnetic effect that made it possible later for hard drives to shrink. Without their interest into the basic principles of magnetism, the web as we know it, and the kind of rich personal data storage every PC enjoys, would simply not be possible. Being able to shrink the size of the medium while storing orders of magnitude more data is the reason that the power to create and edit music and video is now in the hands of the average person. You may decry YouTube, but the chaff was always there in peoples’ heads. Now they can express it, and you never know where you will find joy or genius.

The most interesting prize was the Peace Prize, awarded to both Albert Gore and Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri (head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC). The award was given forĀ  ” . . . their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” The media is playing the speculation game about how Gore will use this newfound publicity, but I’m interested in something more important than that: peace and basic research.

As scientists on the public payroll, we always face questions about the value of the research vs. the dollar investment. Many of us feel the need to constantly worry about the justification. Here, we see a great example of how science, politics, and peace converge in a single moment of recognition. The basic research into how climate changes, how to measure the change, and into the causes of change has been going on for well over two decades. As more and more strands of evidence appeared, the tapestry became one of a clear trend of rapid temperature increase, whose rate of change is much higher than at comparable times in the past. The cause was not changes in the sun, or natural global variations, but “forcing” as a result of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere from human industry.

Though the science spoke louder and louder over time, it took a group of dedicated scientists and politicians to stand as advocates for the science itself. NASA administrators, members of Congress, and even former failed presidential candidates spoke out. Gore’s strategy – to release his powerpoint lecture on the data and the projections of the damage – certainly won the popular imagination. It drew criticism from scientists for being alarmist, but it also drew praise for being a loud voice in the crowd. People paid attention, and soon the national dialogue changed from a cacaphony of media talking heads to a coherent public discourse on how to address the problem. While the data were there, it took the international collaboration of the IPCC and the media saavy Al Gore to really wake people up and force them to participate in the discussion and the solution.

Here, the basic science and the politics had met and joined forces. And what about peace? Climate change is about the future, and how the present influences that future. We cannot know the future, but science gives us a framework to project the consequences of our actions. Left unchecked, we may not see the horrible visions of movies like “The Day After Tomorrow”, but things aren’t going to be rosy. Inhabitants of coastal regions, many of them poor and depending on the sea for their living, will be forced to leave their cities and villages and move inland. Droughts, increased in frequency and devastation by the increase in temperature, will force competition for scarce freshwater resources. Should industrializing nations not learn from the painful lessons of the United States, Europe, and Russia, they will continue to dump the by-products of their economic growth into lakes and rivers, into topsoil and the air, corrupting further the resources needed to sustain civilization. The stresses on societies may cause borders to come into question, wars and massacres to flare, and increase the rhetoric on rights to nuclear technology as an excuse to build weapons while also having a limited, fossil-fuel-free energy supply.

Peace is one of the possible victims of climate change, and it is science that has given us the means to understand the causes of the problem, and the consequences of action and inaction. Peace is certainly at stake as resources shift or shrink. Let’s not forget that basic research does have a role to play in our lives – sometimes, it gives us a broad picture of our own existence, in amazing an unexpected ways. Let this Nobel stand as a testimony to the power of science.

Science Thingy

Just over a week ago, “The Onion” – a weekly joke newspaper – had an article in it entitled, “Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing” [1]. Like all jokes, it contains some interesting issues which are funny because we all worry they might be true. It’s funny for the same reason that “The Daily Show” is funny – it hurts so much to look at lawmakers like that, because down inside we worry it might be reality.

This article’s story is simple. A bunch of scientists, with confusing drawings and a vague message, go before Congress for hours asking for $50 billion. Congressmen, either blissfully ignorant or completely uninterested, say a bunch of vague things about science being important and opine about whether the project should be funded for a variety of political reasons. Some great quotes from the article are:

“The congressmen appeared receptive to what we were saying, and I think
that we made a very convincing case as to why we need a [science
gadget] of this magnitude on American soil,” said Caltech physicist
David Kaminski, who added various other scientific information. “[Some
complicated physics-related act] would be possible in our lifetime only
through the creation of a [science thing].”

“Now, I’m no science major, but if I’m being told by a group of people
that the protons, neutrons, and electrons need unifying, then I think
we owe it to the American people to go in and unify them,” Rep. Mark
Udall (D-CO) said. “After all, isn’t a message of unity what we want to
send to our children?”

” . . . I have always said that science is more important than it is
unimportant,” Committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) said. “And
it’s essential we stay ahead of China, Japan, and Germany in science.
We are ahead in space, with the NASA rockets going to other planets, so
we should be ahead in science too.”

Several of my friends and colleagues have separately included me in forwards about this article. They’re posed worried-sounding questions about it, like “is this how they see us?”

See? It’s funny, but it hurts. It worries me a little too. The article is really on a number of basic stereotypes: Congressmen can’t understand science; scientists can’t explain what they do; basic research doesn’t seem to have any tangible benefits for society. Of course, Congressmen can understand science. Witness Rush Holt and Vernon Ehlers, both physicists. There are also many doctors in Congress, all of whom have at least a basic understanding of biology and chemistry. Scientists can communicate the importance and meaning of what they do. You may not like Brian Greene because of his theoretical leanings, but he gets people excited; Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an incredible communicator of all sciences, especially astronomy and astrophysics. And basic science? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: with linear accelerators came cancer treatments, with open science principles came the Web, and with general relativity came the ability to do accurate global positioning.

We as scientists have a lot of work to do. We have to get the public continually involved in the science, through outreach programs, scholarships and internships for students, and public lectures and forums. We have to keep engaging Congress about what we do, and why we do it. Scientists here in the U.S. aren’t some special nation of people; they are Americans, citizens, or visitors from other nations attracted by the openness and opportunity of American science. They are born just like all babies; what turns them into scientists is not always clear, but they start life like all other people and to me, that means all people can participate in science. Finally, we have to be true to ourselves: do honest science, even when you don’t always know the real use of the work. Be a good scientist, stick to your principles, but be prepared to get other people excited about your work.