Take out your mobile phone and give it a good look. Curiosity made that. Curiosity coupled with intense concentration, wild imagination, bold hypotheses, and years of experimental toil to validate them.
The slim device in your hand encapsulates 500 years of physics. Newtonian mechanics, James Clerk Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism, Einstein’s relativity, Bohr’s atomic theory, Turing’s universal computer, Schrödinger’s quantum wave function, Feynman’s diagram: all these and more streamed into the phone you hold in your hand. And that’s just one branch of science. Somewhere on your upper arm is a tiny scar that represents your vaccination against tuberculosis — the White Death, a plague that claimed the lives of one in five young Americans before the twentieth century.
Today, in just one month’s edition of “Scientific American” there are stories about a realistic plan to send tiny spacecraft to the nearest star within our lifetimes, a tested method of redesigning T-cells drawn from our own bodies to be hypervigilant cancer killers, an ingenious technique to discover the true coloration of dinosaurs, new ways to test robotic systems to determine if they truly possess humanlike intelligence, and a practical experiment to determine if alleviating a mother’s poverty will improve the brain of her newborn child during the first three years of life.
If nothing on that list thrills you, stirs hope in your breast, or awakens your sense of wonder, then throw your phone away. Refuse to vaccinate your kids. Close your mind to the wonders yet to come. Science is not for you.
If you can see the connection between scientific exploration and the quality of our lives; if you value discovery for its own sake as well as the practical benefits it confers; if you perceive how science plays a critical role in warning us of the dangers ahead and how to defuse them, then prepare to march.
If you can see the connection between scientific exploration and the quality of our lives, then prepare to march.
Why? Because ideological denial of science has metastasized from slogans to a cancer on our nation. The White House has purged scientific information, gagged government scientists, and is reversing efforts to mitigate global warming. The new head of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, has fought scientific advice on curbing unnecessary (but highly profitable) medical tests.
The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is an ardent opponent of environmental regulation and a denier of anthropogenic climate change. A physicist said to be the frontrunner for presidential science adviser goes a step further: William Happer declares that climate change will be great for humanity. This is like saying that lighting a torch in a fireworks factory will result in a beautiful display. It could happen, but it’s much more likely that we’d have a calamitous blast.
Yet, for all that the attacks on science appear to come from one political party, science is not a partisan issue. It’s not any kind of issue. Rather, science is a proven method for acquiring reliable knowledge about the world we inhabit and the means to make life better for all. Yes, it creates problems, too—but it also offers solutions to those problems. Progress is real, and it’s a wagon hitched to science. The wheels may be momentarily stuck in the mud of retrograde ideology, but that just means we have to get out and push.
Maybe your shoe leather is worn thin already. Maybe you did the Women’s March or you stayed home on “A Day Without Immigrants.” Possibly you’ve taken some other stand for resistance. Your feet burn. You’re feeling worn down.
Hey, buck up. If we only look out for our favorite cause, none of us will succeed. As statesman, publisher, inventor, and scientist Benjamin Franklin rightly said, “We must indeed all hang together, or we shall, most assuredly, all hang separately.” On April 22, let us assuredly hang together in the March for Science and on April 29 for the People’s Climate March. And if you can’t get to Washington, DC, go online to marchforscience.org and peoples climate.org and check out one of the many satellite marches taking place in your area on those days.
This essay appeared under a slightly different title in the May-June edition of The Humanist magazine.