Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Letter from Butiama: Science and scientists

Sometimes I feel the pair comprising science and scientists is similar to an imagined joint venture between the KGB and the CIA, whose agents I believe at one time were the World's leading gatherers of information. For the latter pair, every piece of information sought had a purpose. For science, it is different.

Scientists are interested in the occurrence of natural regularities. So they investigate these regularities and tell each other and others who are interested, outlining the causes for these occurrences. As a group they have an appetite for understanding every phenomenon in the universe, seen and unseen. The curiosity is important, otherwise humans would still be afraid of venturing too far into the seas and oceans for fear of falling off at the edge of the horizon.

Arthur Koestler, in an article for Encyclopedia Britannica in 1989 wrote: "Spontaneous laughter is a motor reflex produced by the coordinated contraction of 15 facial muscles..." He was discussing the psychological and physiological factors which elicit laughter in humans.

I admit knowledge is important for the survival of humans, but the necessity to know how many muscles it takes to laugh sounds to me irrelevant.to man's survival and advancement. Surely, absorbing such information can be a potential cause for information overload for the average human. Not even computers, one of science's great inventions, have come close to dealing with information overload.

In some instances scientists seem to be so involved with what they do that they fail to provide a convincing link between their work and the 'real' world. These people are principally interested only in knowing why things happen and they leave to others to determine whether the discoveries have any useful application on Earth.

When the North American Space Agency (NASA) launched the New Horizons spacecraft on 19th January 2006 it was the beginning of a nine-year journey to the planet Pluto. Today* New Horizons is on its ninth day of a voyage, having already covered 12.6 million kilometres. At its launch, a man of science, leading a team of other men and women of science, explained the importance of the mission: "...scientists hope to look into the formation of the solar system, how the majority of it operates, and perhaps if the water and organic molecules ubiquitous on Earth and other inner planets might have originated in its vast gloomy reaches."

The launch of New Horizons. According to NASA the craft will make its closest Pluto approach in 1,219 days and 22 hours. [Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech]
Invariably the objective of these missions is to locate clues about the origin of the solar system. How will the discovery of the clues to the origins of the solar system help me make enough money this year to reduce a large component of my debts? It requires a long stretch of one's imagination to always find the link between science and the solution to our problems.

But to be fair to science and scientists, there is normally a long incubation period between discoveries made in science before those discoveries make a meaningful contribution to humanity. It is also not usually easy to predict where one discovery may lead to. Sometimes, a combination of discoveries leads to something that was unplanned. The roots of computer science can be traced to work carried out by scientific minds in the field of electrical engineering and mathematics.

A long period passed before some other people put together this invention with that discovery and assembled a computer. Today, computers are used widely in every conceivable sphere of human activity, from the creation of music to business logistics, from aerospace design to use in modern warfare, not to mention being extremely convenient to columnists who find reason to criticize the impractical minds of some scientists.

But I am yet to find reason in the discovery of the number of facial muscles the human being requires  to execute a serious laugh. What I might find extremely useful is the day science will enable people to transform an existing debt into a virtual debt at the press of a key on a computer keyboard.

*28th January 2006. This article was originally published on 29th January 2006 in the Sunday News.

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