Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Nobel prize and the grandeur view of life

As news of the latest Nobel prizes in physics and medicine were announced, science became a central story for many news outlets. Numerous stories and interviews were held about the discoveries that earned the laureates their just rewards. I’ve heard interviews with medicine winners, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider (2/3 of the prize, the other being Jack Szostak), about their discovery of telomeres and telomerase, and with Willard Boyle (for physics) on inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit (i.e., digital recording of light). The media play up the applications to humanity. Telomeres and telomerase offer a deeper understanding of cancer and potential treatments. The digital recording of light gave us digital cameras (among a plethora of other technologies).

However, in the interviews with these great scientists, there was a common thread in what they said. They reiterated the need to support basic science and that the pursuit of curiosity-driven science is a worthy and valuable enterprise. I found the fact that they found it necessary to reiterate this to be interesting and something that interviewers thought worthy of reiterating themselves. I know that news stories need to relate to a person’s everyday experience, but, I think, basic science offers something more. To quote Darwin “There is grandeur in this view of life”. That is, while the products of science have surely improved our quality of live, science has given us something deeper and more meaningful. Basic curiosity-driven research has changed our understanding of the world and our place in it. We now look up at the stars and have a pretty good idea of what they are. We know what causes thunder and lightening. We understand why our pet cat looks kinda of like a lion and gorillas like people. We no longer look to superstition and myth to explain these aspects of nature. To me, this is the fundamental contribution of science to humanity, and I wish this were as celebrated as technological advances. Though being able to take 2 gigabytes of photos and movies when my daughter is doing something cute is pretty cool too, I guess.

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