Wielding Science

Towards the end of his life, the famous astronomer Carl Sagan gave an interview in which he stated, “We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?”

Carl Sagan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a recent graduate of a master’s degree program in crop science, I’ve found myself troubled by the general lack of well-rounded scientific knowledge in the public at large. Even in the academic community, students and specialists spend huge amounts of time learning more about less, ignoring entire fields of study as irrelevant to their professional development. It was disappointing when the professors in my department failed to excite farmers about their advances in understanding crop disease resistance, but it was equally unsettling when none of my fellow grad students understood a parallel I drew between the drop in the cost of genetic sequencing technology and Moore’s Law. The boundaries between disciplines continue to blur as researchers develop biological computers or body armor from mantis shrimp or model mosh pits using gas laws, and no one can afford to be ignorant about seemingly far-removed spheres of science.

This blog, in some small way, will aim to broaden the scientific knowledge of a curious public. I hope to expose my readers to exciting new discoveries across the breadth of scientific inquiry, as well as to discuss the implications of these discoveries to society and the environment. By no means should we lose the sense of wonder gained from learning about the world, but we should also consider how the world might be changed by our learning. We live in fast-moving times for science and technology. It is our responsibility as human beings not to fall behind.

I’d like to close with another Sagan quote, from which I’ve taken the name of this blog. “And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our world—from Dr. Faust to Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning children’s television. (All this doesn’t inspire budding scientists.) But there’s no way back. We can’t just conclude that science puts too much power into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power-crazed politicians and decide to get rid of it. Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history. Advances in transportation, communication, and entertainment have transformed the world. The sword of science is double-edged. Rather, its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibility — more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective, an incentive to avoid easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism. Mistakes are becoming too expensive.”

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