AMERICAN astrophysicist and all-round media star Neil deGrasse Tyson has been talking up a storm on his current Australian tour.
A passionate advocate for science and science education, Dr Tyson last week argued that we need a more scientifically literate population and — even more importantly — political leadership.
“One of the great tragedies of modern society is that you have politicians cherry picking science in the interests of social, cultural, political, religious belief systems and that’s the beginning of the end of an informed democracy”, he said on last week’s ABC Q&A program.
Dr Tyson isn’t opposed to people holding whatever wacky views they want. He just thinks “if your belief is not based in objective truths, you should not be creating legislation based on it”.
Interesting to wonder what he would have made of the federal government’s plans to appoint a “windfarm commissioner” to investigate complaints about turbines, despite the absolute lack of evidence for detrimental health effects.
To be fair, Dr Tyson doesn’t hold the politicians entirely to blame for scientifically illiterate decisions, suggesting there is something missing in an education system that produces people without a proper understanding of what science is and how and why it works.
“If you come out with that understanding, then you are incapable of cherry picking science”, he said on Q&A. “Imagine you gained weight last week and you want to repeal the law of gravity because you weigh more because of it.”
He may not believe it’s possible to repeal the law of gravity, but Dr Tyson is definitely gung-ho when talking about what science might be able to achieve.
Some might question his suggestion that in the future we will be able to suck all the energy from a hurricane and use it to power the city that would otherwise have been razed by the storm, for example.
Or the idea that shortage of resources won’t be an issue in the future because we’ll be able to get everything we need from asteroids.
But, hey, he’s a dreamer…
What I find most compelling about Dr Tyson’s arguments is his powerful defence of the importance of basic research, especially given the increasing pressures for all investigations to have clear and predictable real-world applications.
So often in medicine and other areas of science the major breakthroughs come as unexpected consequences of apparently unrelated discoveries, as Dr Tyson makes clear.
“Before Wilhem Röntgen discovered X rays, he wasn’t thinking, How can I create a medical device?” he said in an article in The New Yorker last year.
And on the ABC's PM program last week, he waxed lyrical about the myriad offshoots from an obscure finding about the stimulated emission of radiation made by a certain Albert Einstein early in the 20th century.
That was the founding paper on what we now know as lasers, with all their applications in medicine, electronics and industry, though nobody would have known that at the time.
“Are you saying, ‘no I don’t know how you would ever use this research so let’s not do it because I have to know right now what the eternal application of this discovery will be’”, Dr Tyson asked.
“What you are doing is you are burying, you are destroying the seed corn of truly revolutionary science and technology that could take this country into the next century and lead the world.
“Without it you will dance the tune played by others who have the insight of how to make those kinds of investments.”
Dancing to our own tune would require a political leadership that truly understands the nature of scientific research.
Well, like Dr Tyson, we can always dream …
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.