Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Science and Survival

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

— Isaac Asimov, 1988

When I first graduated from college, I was afraid that I would never learn anything again. After all, I was no longer in school. No longer in a formal setting where learning was my only job. No longer being forced to study things I thought I had no interest in. (I didn’t realize then that one of the gifts of my college education was that I had all of the tools I needed to think and explore and gain knowledge on my own.)

But at the time, I was sure that entering the working world would lead to brain atrophy. So I decided to combat this demise by consciously tackling a subject that had never particularly resonated with me—science. Taking a formal class didn’t sound too appealing since I had just finished with that routine. So I subscribed to a science magazine for laypeople called Discover.

I can’t remember any article in particular that made me realize that I did indeed like science, but there must have been something—or an accumulation of somethings—that sparked my interest. I finally grasped that this was an exciting field that was in a constant state of transformation, methodically chipping away at some of the greatest mysteries and questions ever posed by humankind.

I no longer subscribe to the magazine, but I’ve not ended my love affair with science. Today, my teacher of choice is TV and the countless programs about geology, archeology, biology, technology and all of the other –ologies that captivate me.

Perhaps there are so many programs to choose among because discoveries (and cable channels) are coming to light at an unprecedented pace. I think this is due to several factors. First, we have thousands of years of observations, theories and research to build upon. Second, computers have accelerated calculations and experimentation so that hypotheses can be proven, or negated, with astonishing speed.

And third is the one I find most intriguing—the near-instant globalization of new knowledge. Discoveries are shared with the world almost as soon as they’re made. Everyone has access to that knowledge, which they can use to inform or influence their own work.

It’s never been easier for scientists to take a more holistic approach to their areas of study. And not just scientists. Historians, political scientists and researchers from all disciplines are using the collective knowledge pool to explain any number of past, present and even future events.

For example, questions abounded about why an ancient Asian warrior tribe abandoned their lands to a weaker people. We know from paleoclimatologists that central Asia around this time was experiencing periods of drought followed by periods of extreme cold. And we know from historians and archeologists that the warrior tribe was dependent on horses, while the other tribe raised cows.

A look at the animals’ physiology points to why the “weaker” people were more successful in handling the weather swings. Cows have three stomachs to process their food, allowing them to exist on a poor-quality diet. The horses, however, couldn’t get enough nutrients to survive. So the warrior tribe had to move to greener pastures (literally) or abandon their precious horses. Obviously, they chose to migrate.

Another example is the massive eruption in 1783 of the Laki volcano in Iceland. The ash cloud it generated covered most of Europe and caused harsh weather that destroyed both crops and livestock. After years of extreme climate changes, the common folk in France got tired of suffering severe food shortages while the aristocracy flaunted their extravagant indulgences. Their frustration eventually triggered the French Revolution.

So everything in, and out of, this world really is interconnected. And capable of altering not just the physical landscape, but the political one as well.

When you look at how formidable our opponents from the natural world are, it seems foolish for humankind to keep putting our knowledge into how to destroy each other. We need instead to pool our intelligence to figure out how to survive the next catastrophic event coming our way. We need to gain our wisdom at the same rate as our knowledge.


  1. Hear, Hear! Your last paragraph says it all!

    I too love science! Last night my favorite science guy, Michio Kaku, was on the Science channel explaining how to travel to a parallel universe (what could be more fun!!):

    You know, I'm starting to look forward to Wednesday's now as I know there will be something wonderful to read that you've written here!

  2. bravo! science is my favorite subject too.

    I had saved my Discover mags for several years... then one day I thumbed through a few copies and realized how dated the material was. It was nice getting some shelf space back.

    Looking forward to new discoveries in 2010.