Jim Baggott graduated in chemistry in Manchester in 1978 and completed his doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford three years later. He has been studying and writing about science, philosophy and science history for nearly 20 years. He was won awards for both scientific research and science writing. His recent books have been widely acclaimed. They include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-49 (Icon Books, 2009), A Beginner’s Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), and Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (Oxford University Press, 2004).
When Alom asked me if I would make a contribution to this site, I said I’d think about it. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of days now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the question ‘Why is science important?’ is actually faintly ridiculous. It’s a bit like asking ‘Why is breathing important?’ The answer is so painfully self-evident that it barely seems worth asking the question.
Instead of an answer, I’ll pose a challenge instead. Push back from your PC or laptop and look around you. Try to think of things that happen in your life which do not depend in some way on science. Before the anal retentive at the back with his hand raised opens his mouth to protest that it is technology that has come to dominate all aspects of our lives, let’s be absolutely clear that there can be no technology without science. So, are you struggling? If you’re being honest with yourself, I doubt that you can find more than a few aspects of your life that are not in some way shaped or even dominated by science. This answers the question. This is why science is important. In our Western, scientific-technical culture, science determines who and how we are.
Why, then, do we feel it is even necessary to ask such a question? Because, of course, despite its evident success and ubiquity, science appears to be under threat. Not from anti-science movements necessarily, but from a much more worrisome foe: a distinct lack of interest in all things scientific.
Perhaps a more relevant question is, therefore: ‘Why should anyone be interested?’ In seeking an answer to this question, I would encourage honesty and pragmatism. The truth is, not all science is interesting. A lot of it is pretty dull, in fact.
It helps to steal some of the logic from Thomas Kuhn’s fabled analysis of the structure of scientific revolutions. Kuhn differentiated between ‘normal’ science, the routine puzzle-solving that scientists engage in within the boundaries of the prevailing ‘paradigm’. Kuhn had many different ways of using the word ‘paradigm’ so to keep things simple here I’ll use it to mean the collective understanding of the way the world works, its agents and its rules, that prevails within the scientific community at any point in time. Think of the paradigm as the accepted language scientists use to have intelligent conversations among themselves about the puzzles they’re working on.
Normal science operating within various paradigms, I would like to suggest, has been the foundation of various generations of our technology. But here’s the rub. Normal science is like doing crosswords or Sudoku. Unless you are an obsessive puzzle-solver, normal science can appear rather boring. It is also horribly complex, with the heaviness of three hundred years of accumulated learning weighing on the shoulders of anyone who wants to understand how to do the puzzles. We really ought not to be surprised when people profess a lack of interest.
Try explaining to a teenager with a limited attention-span how 3G wireless telephony supports mobile multi-media applications because it makes use of packet-switched data with improved spectral efficiency, and perhaps you get my point. Teenagers don’t need to understand the technology and the science beneath it in order to enjoy the experiences of 3G wireless telephony. They don’t need to understand it in order to be what teenagers generally are.
What makes science interesting - what really brings science alive - is when the scientists stumble over bits and pieces of evidence that don’t fit comfortably within the accepted paradigm. As the evidence builds, the minor irritation becomes a major problem, the problem becomes a crisis and the crisis sparks a revolution. Questions no longer have easy answers. Emotions run high. Arguments break out. Sometimes it gets ugly. Kuhn made direct comparisons between the processes of scientific revolution and political revolution.
In a revolution, the scientists ask themselves deep and meaningful questions that hint faintly (sometimes not so faintly) at philosophical questions, about precisely how the world works and what our place is within it. The old guard tend to stumble, because a lifetime spent tutoring scientists in the ways of the old paradigm is poor preparation for the next paradigm-shift. It is instead the young turks, those younger scientists who are insufficiently wedded to the rules that they are prepared to throw them out with seeming abandon, who step up and shape the new paradigm.
It was revolutionary science that led to our modern understanding of the universe. It was revolutionary science that created evolution by natural selection. Revolutionary science led to relativity and quantum physics, quarks and the standard model. In a scientific revolution, it becomes permissible once again to gape in child-like awe and wonder at the marvellous mystery of it all. It is this kind of science which inspires.
So, when seeking to fire the imaginations of the next generation of scientists and technologists it is perhaps worthwhile remembering that it is usually the questions that fascinate, not our convoluted, long-winded, hundred-year-old answers.