For Carl Sagan’s Birthday
By Geoffrey W. Marcy
For Carl Sagan’s birthday on November 9, 2010.
Inspired by President Obama’s talk to the National Academy of Sciences and by Carl Sagan’s many teachings.
Geoffrey W. Marcy is a professor of astronomy at the University of California. He is also the director of Berkeley's Center for Integrative Planetary Science. Marcy's research focuses on the detection of extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs. His team has discovered about half of the 350 known planets around other stars, including the first multiple-planet system, the first Saturn-mass planets, and the first Neptune-mass planet. Marcy is the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious Shaw Prize in 2005, Discovery Magazine's Space Scientist of the Year in 2003, the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the Carl Sagan Award, the Beatrice Tinsley Prize, and the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Our curiosity, our quest for knowledge, and our scientific enterprise offer each generation an opportunity to pass a better life to its children. Scientific progress offers our civilization great hope but also complex challenges. New medical breakthroughs hold the promise of unlocking new cures and treatments. But they are unfortunately attached to a health care system in the U.S. that sometimes fails to deliver that promise to the less financially endowed among us.
Science provides the generation of energy that powers our economy. But some energy generation processes also threaten the global climate and make weapons possible that only the insane would use.
Science also binds the world’s nations and peoples with communication technologies and an open marketplace of ideas that link the Wall Street broker to the middle school student to the factory worker in Xi’an, China. Science provides the commodities upon which the world is forever linked in commercial interdependence that offers hope for a peaceful future for our species.
Thus, science offers opportunities for better and healthier lives for everyone on Earth. But we bear a great responsibility to use that science thoughtfully and compassionately.
Now heading into 2011, we are enduring bad economic times. But during this time science is even more important for our future prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been.
Here in the United States, the government is struggling to pay the bills. But the U.S. can best extricate itself from its troubles by maintaining strong funding for education of young people and for scientific research toward sustainable technologies.
In America we face another threat. Nearly half of us still believe that the theory of evolution is a hoax, some sort of pompous attack by the educated “elite”. If we adopted that view, we would be fighting Swine Flu with the same vaccine that we used for last year’s flu or last decade’s flu. Last year’s vaccine has no value because even viruses obey the theory of evolution. Those few viruses that survived last year’s vaccine reproduce happily in the next year, ready to give you a high fever, unless you stay ahead of their evolutionary game. Fortunately, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control appreciate the theory of evolution.
Similarly, half of Americans barely recognize the measurable reality of global warming. Too many are caught in some political fog, unaware that thermometer readings and receding glaciers are not subject to debate. We must change the discussion in America, starting in K-12 schools, so that rational, thoughtful discourse on scientific issues replaces out-dated political or religious dogma.
Finally, science and technology are competitive. Each society struggles to gain an edge, especially for the commercial value that accrues from creativity. Yet, funding for American schools continues to be inadequate. American students are routinely outperformed in math and science by their peers in Singapore, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Korea, among others. Studies show that American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to nations around the world.
America can do better in K-12 education considering its great wealth, so much of which is wasted on unnecessary military spending. Science education must be enhanced in the U.S. for three fundamental reasons. First, we need the next-generation technologies that keep our economy sound. Second, we need to share the breathtaking beauty of nature, of our environment, of the microscopic world, of complex ecosystems, of the oceans, the atmosphere, and our entire universe of planets, stars, and galaxies.
And third, science inspires us to use our marvelous brains to their best advantage, to solve complex problems well outside the domain of science itself. Indeed, the social challenges of cooperation on a global scale matter more than science itself, as we humans struggle to avoid blowing ourselves up in smoke. Science offers international relations the gift of process. Contemplative discourse and the humility of uncertainty can bring fruitful and amicable progress.
Indeed, science ironically teaches us that there are limitations to our knowledge and that we should question our long-held views about ourselves and our beliefs. Science suggests that we should remain humble, even about our passionately held truths, as the next generation of careful thinkers may render our beliefs quaint if not plain wrong. Science will not change our principles nor our faith. But science can inform those things and help put them in perspective. In the end, we Homo sapiens bear two great challenges. One is to remain good stewards of our home planet, which may be a rare cosmic orb suitable for technological life. And it is to survive long enough to venture to the stars, allowing the universe to know itself a bit better.