Ben Bova: Scientific research makes our lives longer, better, richer

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About 25 years ago, on a university campus in New England, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion about science and the arts.

As a science-fiction writer, I have a foot in both camps: I have to be familiar with scientific knowledge and I need to be able to write fiction for a wide range of readers.

The other panelists were mostly from the university’s faculty: some were real scientists, some professors of English and other parts of the arts side of the campus.

Several hundred students filled the auditorium, many of them taking notes about what we panelists were saying.

The speaker just before me, a professor of English, said, rather disdainfully, science was greatly overrated by the general public. Science, he went on loftily, is no more than a certain way of looking at the world. There are other worldviews, such as religion or folk lore or even astrology, that are just as important and useful.

I was appalled not merely by his obvious condescension, but by the fact that most of the students had dutifully jotted down his comments. I was more than appalled; I was angry.

It was my turn to speak. Somewhat intemperately, I said to the students, “You have just listened to five minutes of nonsense. It’s important to know the difference between sense and nonsense, because that difference can kill you.”

I turned to the professor and invited him to cross the intersection of Manhattan’s 44th Street and Lexington Avenue at 4 p.m. any afternoon — blindfolded, based on what his horoscope tells him or how his prayers guide him.

That’s a good way to get hit by a bus. When we cross a busy street, we look, we estimate our chances of getting across without being run down by a truck, and only after we’ve made that mental calculation do we step off the curb.

That is science: observe, measure, draw a conclusion, and then test that conclusion to see if it works.

Science is responsible for our modern world. Five hundred years ago, before modern science began to affect civilization, most human beings lived at a bare subsistence level. They died young, prey to diseases and infections that have long since been virtually banished from our existence. Women often died in childbirth. Poverty was the norm for almost everyone.

The discoveries of modern science changed all that. Scientific knowledge led to technological inventions, which generated new wealth. The rich got richer, of course, but the poor got richer as well. We are all much, much better off than our ancestors were five centuries ago. Thanks to science.

I became interested in science through astronomy. The first time I visited a planetarium, when I was about 10 years old, the splendor of the heavens thrilled me. And the knowledge that we can understand the stars — their motions, their origins, their futures — thrilled me even more.

I became a newspaper reporter eventually. Every summer we carried a box score on the paper’s front page, about polio: how many children had been killed, how many crippled, how many placed in iron lungs because they couldn’t breathe on their own.

Then one spring day we carried a story about the Salk vaccine, with photos of children crying as doctors stuck needles in their arms, while their mothers looked bravely on. And we never had to run a box score about polio again.

That’s when it really hit me: Science is important. It can be the difference between life and death. That’s why I became so upset with that English professor’s inane remarks.

Critics point out that scientific knowledge hasn’t been entirely beneficial. Science and technology have led to global pollution, weapons of mass destruction, man-made disasters. All of these problems stem from the fact that science has helped humankind to grow explosively. Our major problems all come out of our success as a species: we’re overpopulating the planet and driving many other species into extinction.

But understanding that the problem exists is the first step toward a solution. Scientific research offers us a way to make this world cleaner, safer, richer.

It’s the best tool we have.

Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Hittite,” his first historical novel. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com

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