Sunday, June 01, 2008

Put a Little Science in Your Life

Brian Green has a nice piece in today's NY Times.
The reason science really matters runs deeper [than cellphones, iPods, personal computers, the Internet, CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers, arterial stents, stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, and space technology].

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding [paragraph break and emphasis added] in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional.

To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences. [paragraph break and emphasis added] …

Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension. …

As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it’s a profound loss. …

[One of the most important reasons for this loss is that] in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.

In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?” …

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.
My question is whether most people will really respond to science as Prof. Greene thinks they will. If you ask, "Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness?" my guess is that most people will either fall back on a religious answer or say that it's too complicated to think about — and what difference does it make anyway.

I teach a course on computer ethics. Most students don't seem to be interested in such questions as: How should we approach intellectual property? What are the responsibilities of software developers? What is privacy? How much privacy do we want to ensure? Can we ensure it, and if so at what price? What if we can't? Is it every ethical to break into a computer system? Should we fear developing computers that are smarter than we are? or even the more general ethical issues like: Is it ethical to kill one innocent person to save 5 innocent people?

These are not science questions—in fact science stays as far away from these questions as possible. But they raise fascinating issues. Yet in class there is often very little interest in discussing them. This sort of response shows the same lack of intellectual curiosity as I suspect most people have toward the big questions of science.

I'm afraid that Prof. Greene over estimates most people's inherent curiosity. Too many of us are more like George Bush the incurious than Brian Greene the knowledge seeker. (I give George W. Bush credit for one useful achievement, the popularization of the word incurious.)

1 comment:

C├ędric Gommes said...

It often strikes me how professional scientists are often not curious at all.

Ordinary incuriousity is, however, central in what Thomas Kuhn was calling "normal science".