Who needs science?
12:00 AM, October 27, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:01 PM, October 31, 2016

Who needs science?

How many of us cared about who got the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry earlier this month and for what? What kind of coverage did it get from the media? How many scientists and academics with PhDs have written about them in accessible terms or anything at all?  But more importantly, why should we care?

There are some who happily use the innovations made possible by science but feel that science itself does not belong in their lives. They view it as a subject merely to be studied in the classroom or a body of esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of the latest, coolest gadget or medical breakthrough.

It is indefensible that someone is considered unlettered for not having read a work of Shakespeare, and yet the same charge does not apply when it comes to understanding fundamental scientific concepts such as the second law of thermodynamics or what E=MC2 actually means.

Science speaks of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and a sense of connection between our lives and the universe. Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is devoid of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension.

When we look at the emerging opportunities hovering on the horizon - stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalised medicine, longevity research, nanotechnology, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology - we realise how important it is to cultivate a public that can engage with these issues.

There's simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues like population, disaster management, development of the blue economy that will shape our future in the next 15 years.

Why should we know about the Nobel Prize winning works in Physics? How do they relate to our lives? What did David Thouless of the University of Washington, Duncan Haldane of Princeton and J Michael Kosterlitz of Brown do to deserve the prize?

In essence, they demonstrated that the bizarre properties of matter at cold or condensed states -for instance, when super-cold materials conduct electricity without resistance - could be explained by topology. Topology is a branch of mathematics that studies what properties of objects are unaffected when they are stretched, twisted, or deformed.

The research has led scientists to develop new materials with novel properties. Some of these materials are called “topological insulators” which conduct electricity solely on their surface and not inside. One of these insulators, called stanene, basically a one-atom thick layer of tin, will conduct electricity at high temperatures with little resistance. One day, scientists hope stanene could perhaps replace copper components in computers.

And what of the work of chemists this year? Jean-Pierre Sauvage of University of Strasbourg in France, J. Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern, and Bernard L. Feringa of University of Groningen in the Netherlands created molecular machines, the world's smallest mechanical devices which may eventually be used to create new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.

Their invention will undoubtedly advance nanotechnology - the creation of structures on the scale of a nanometre, or a billionth of a metre. “In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors,” the Swedish Academy said.

For most of us, things that are so far removed from our daily experience - like nanotechnology, topology or Donald Trump - are inherently hard to understand. Communication, therefore, is the key. The art of science communication is to pitch something as complicated as fluid mechanics in a way that is not only engaging but also true to the evidence. We have to put the fizz back in physics and take the sigh out of science. We have to follow the grandma rule: You don't really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother. And we have talk about it in a way that reaffirms the fact that there is no clash between science and culture. 

Scientific discussion is a diminishing wedge of a fast-growing pie of light-speed media. This reality threatens to erode the already limited public appreciation and understanding of science. But the situation also provides a great opportunity - and responsibility - for the scientists and the media to engage the public. Where ignorance lurks, so do the frontiers of discovery and imagination. Scientific literacy is a vaccine against those who exploit the ignorance of the common man.



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