Paul Halpern is a physics professor at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia in the United States. He is the author of 11 popular science books to date, including “What’s Science Ever Done for Us? What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots Life, and the Universe.” His forthcoming book “Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles” will be published in Summer 2009.
As a child, one of my favorite activities was venturing to the local science museum, the Franklin Institute. It offered a welcome escape from the mundane duties and concerns of ordinary life. Beyond its columned façade was a wondrous place, full of fantastic push-button displays, the goal for which seemed to be activating as many flashing panels as quickly possible. Sparks would fly, wheels would whirl, and automata would come to life. All this was enormously exciting - a lesson that there was more to life than just eating, sleeping and navigating the nuances of schoolyard banter. The astronomy exhibits, in particular, helped put ephemeral concerns in perspective. To my great relief, I came to realise that my low marks in handwriting would one day be forgotten - all records erased - when the Sun became a red giant and decimated Earth.
Though many years have passed, I have yet to outgrow my childhood wonder. Science has advanced at an incredible pace. It is miraculous to think that denizens of our tiny planet have the ability to map out conditions from the earliest stages of the universe, chart the velocities of enormously distant galaxies, and predict the behaviour of astronomical objects thousands of millions of years hence. Progress in charting inner space has advanced just as spectacularly as that of outer space. Less than a century and a half since Darwin’s bold proposal, our knowledge of genetics, proteomics and related fields has grown at a staggering pace.
Even those uninterested in the details of scientific progress can appreciate the prospects it has brought for an improved quality of life. Innovations in biology, chemistry and other fields have offered effective treatments for once-deadly diseases, artificial materials that improve upon nature, methods for collecting and utilising renewable forms of energy, and tools for environmental improvement. These require an ethical use of science and accountability to the general public. As the 21st century progresses, science education will be the key to fantastic new discoveries harnessed for the benefit of all.