Put a little science in your life

There is an excellent op-ed piece by Brian Greene in the New York Times today entitled “Put a little science in your life“. It discusses the importance of science, not only in addressing the modern world’s challenges, but also in empowering individuals with a means of understanding the world around them.

By a random coincidence, I recently wrote a similar (but less eloquent) piece myself, as a short forward to the 2008 “World-wide day of science” project at the University of New South Wales. I am enclosing this forward below the fold.

We live today in the most technologically advanced age that human history has known. But for most of us, our understanding of the technologies we use and benefit from, and of the science and mathematics that powers them, is not nearly as advanced. A farmer or factory worker from an earlier era would have a reasonably good understanding as to how the tools he or she uses actually works, but many people today who search the web, use a cell phone, withdraw money from an ATM, or otherwise interact with modern technology have only a vague sense as to how these technologies work (and how to repair them if they fail). Our success in making technology more sophisticated, powerful, and user-friendly has, paradoxically, intimidated many from satisfying their curiosity about how these technologies work, and how to make them better.

But our current technology is far from perfect, and we need as many people as possible with curiosity, enthusiasm, hard work, and talent to understand the world better, to understand our technologies and problems better, and to tackle these problems or to simply make the world a little bit cleaner, safer, more efficient, more comfortable, or more fun, perhaps in ways that almost nobody today can foresee. (Imagine explaining, say, the concept of a freely available and extremely convenient search engine for the “World Wide Web” to someone from 1980.) There are many professions that can have such an impact on the world; but quite a few of them require training, or at least literacy, in science and mathematics. And it is not just “high tech” industries, universities, and labs that need scientists and mathematicians; even such “low tech” sectors as agriculture, mining, or transport also have great need of quantitative and scientific skills nowadays in order to stay efficient and productive, and to adapt to future challenges (e.g. climate change or rising energy costs).

Science and maths do require some effort to learn properly. It’s not always enough to memorise a formula or a definition; one also has to keep asking questions, identify (and perhaps discard) any hidden assumptions or hypotheses, and connect abstract theories with concrete real-world examples – in short, one has to think. This is not always easy to do, and takes time. (I am still learning new facts – some of them very basic – about maths every day, though I have been a professional mathematician for over a decade.) But the payoff is an increased ability to understand and appreciate the world around us – both the natural world and the man-made one. And, eventually, the opportunity to improve these worlds in some modest way for the better, either individually or in collaboration with others.

Hopefully, the stories here will give you a taste of all of this, as you are considering your own career choices. The English poet, Eden Phillpotts, wrote, “The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper”. Learning (and then doing) maths and science is one way to sharpen one’s wits; I recommend giving it a try.

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