(a bit of a rant)
My son had some college friends over for dinner a while back, and at one rather interesting point in a lively conversation my overall respect for science became evident, and this fellow Henry (that’s not really his name), scoffed “Pfft. What has science ever done for me?”
I hardly knew what to say. And by the way, the complaint is probably more often levied at mathematics — what possible good is it in our lives?
Henry was wearing clothes made of synthetic materials and dyes, both the result of many years of chemical research, woven into cloth by machines that run on electricity from a sophisticated electrical grid and are controlled by computers. He had a cell phone on his belt — good lord. The chips in it are the product of quantum mechanics and semiconductor physics. The software on it owes heavily to computer science. The encryption it uses to keep Henry’s conversations private is based on number theory. Our understanding of electromagnetism allows us to transmit his conversations using antennas designed using antenna theory. The transmission encoding depends on information theory. And heck, he drove over in a car; just imagine what we could find in the car and the roads and the oil refineries that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for science.
But even that is peanuts. If it weren’t for science and math, Henry would very likely not exist at all. Consider: the germ theory of disease, the statistical methods by which we determine the effectiveness and risk of medicines, microscopes, medical imaging systems like MRI scanners and X-rays, diagnostic tests, medical monitoring equipment, medical databases, and so on — medicine has come a long way as the result of science. What are the chances that he or some ancestor of his would have died without all of that support, I wonder. Remember what infant mortality was like a few hundred years ago, and the average lifespan of those who did survive to adulthood? And food — there are way too many people on this planet for the food supply that could be produced without the chemical fertilizer made possible by the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen. And let’s not forget clean water.
If you could somehow magically go back in time and eliminate every person who made a contribution to science or math, our lives would be very primitive indeed. Which begs the question — how in the world could anyone in a developed country, particularly a college student, be so unaware of the mammoth contribution science and math have made to our quality of life?
Certainly as our world grows more complex, our understanding of it has trouble keeping up. Perhaps the average person simply thinks that cell phones come from businesses like Apple and Motorola and leaves it at that — no science needed, just retail storefronts. “Who needs science? I can get everything I need at WalMart!” Perhaps the conceptual distance between quantum mechanics and the use of it to talk to your girlfriend is just too great, and we lose the connection. Perhaps the greater our debt to science and math, the poorer our appreciation of their role in our lives.
Henry, were it not for science and math your life would suck beyond your imagination, except for the detail that you probably wouldn’t be alive at all.