This has been said before and better, but here is my reaction blog.
During a lukewarm and one-sided discussion on twitter about Brian Cox and populist science television, I was asked, “but why does it matter if people are interested in science?”
Why does it matter why people are interested in anything? As long as they can eat, sleep and feed themselves, why don’t they just spend the rest of the time pondering the perfect aim of their spit from a tower or staring at flickers while taking none of them in?
There is no economical gain for the world in me attempting to understand the stars. Wider branches of humanity will gain no new insights or intellectual revolutions from my personal attempts to comprehend the behaviour of butterflies or hadron colliders.
I am passing the time until I have no more time to pass and my son inherits my telescope and a towers of books pencil marked and highlighter stained.
So why, unless it is our professional pursuit, does it matter if any of us are interested in science? Here are the first five things that appeared in my mind. There are better list, please add what you think, these were the first ideas that sprang.
- I enjoy having moments of understanding why things might be as they are. As I have watched my son over the last five years and seen his changing and sometimes errant ways, taking an interest in why he does what he does, reading through the current thinking of how brains develop and empathy blossoms, has hopefully helped me learn more on how to react and interact. In imagining the shortcomings in his infant brain I have attempted to realise where my ways of treating him may fall short. By trying to understand why children are as they are and we are as we are I think we can aim (we may miss) to be better people and to treat the problems of upbringing with greater grace and care. This extends to understanding why other people behave as they do. For practical purposes, there is an advantage in a society where people start to properly consider why people commit crime, abuse and deride.
- The late mid to late 20th century was a very good time to be human, now, with our rapidly increasing population and our lust for energy to power all around us from streetlights to tin openers, it is important to know where this came from. It is important to know that being human has not always been like this, that we are the lucky ones but that this “luck” was built on trial, error, experiment and evidence based thinking. History and science can teach us not to take for granted so much we are nonchalant about. Vaccination and clean water have changed the regularity with which we have to visit the churchyard.
- Looking at how others have investigated nature and the universe helps us learn methods to investigate our day to day world. This may be in choosing medical treatments or cauliflowers, reading about science and rationalism has helped me learn how to question things. It has helped me learn how to mentally arm myself. We should know something of science so we can ask the right questions and understand the answers. So many of the things I use are the products of scientific and technological minds, I do not understand much of many of them, but I am trying to rise beyond my passivity and not take for granted great strides that have been made. (I have banged on about this before https://robinince.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/the-fascism-of-knowing-stuff/”>here.
- There is delight. Looking through telescopes, seeing images of nebulae, reading of natural selection and mulling over sponge crabs can give a sense of joy and intrigue. The more you wonder about what is around you and within you, the tiny creatures in your gut and the blue whales in the sea, the more the intrigue grows. Intrigue and questioning existence, wondering about self-consciousness, peering at snail shells and picking up earthworms can help rid you of the ennui of existence that can plague some people.
- All human beings should be made to watch Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, it is good to have a sense of our place in the universe and the fragility of life.
To sum up, the main reasons I think I am interested in science are to improve my understanding of other people and myself, to enhance my thinking when making decisions and wishing to interrogate others, to give a sense of drama and narrative without resorting to the mystical or more than likely made up, because it is an engrossing way of spending time, because it creates an immense, perhaps infinite, landscape for the imagination and is an impetus to “do things”.
From a selfish point of view, to hell with it, why know about science? You can eat cheesburgers, drive fast cars, leer, hoot and holler without reading about background microwave radiation, coral reefs and orchids. From a self-interested perspective, there may be more in it than you imagine. Life in the western world may be less precarious than it once was, but everything that can make us brittle and dust again is still harboured in and around us. A world of narcissists and sociopaths does not bode well for human evolution.
To start the journey of understanding why we are where we are, to attempt to grasp the problems that our descendants may face if we are too casual or heartless with our implements and momentary gains seems to be a worthwhile and rewarding way of spending your free time. This is not just through science, it is through history, literature, philosophy and through a telescope.
My apologies to the nihilists I have infuriated by writing this.
Whatever happens, as things stand now, you will die and I will die. We’ll rot and the atoms that were us will be different things, they’ll be in the animate and inanimate, streams, moths and bark. What you may consider to be your atoms (on loan) maybe mixed up with your mortal enemies atoms, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it, because YOU’ll be no more and neither will he.
If you really think that because there is no grand purpose and meaning written in the blueprint of the universe then there is no point in doing anything, if you want to be that bleak teen or the human sneering at the back and feeling superior because “you’ve risen above it all”, well pecans to you.
My Importance of Being Interested tour is off to Radlett, Bristol, Shoreham, Isle of Wight soon, plus 40 further dates. All details HERE
Happiness through Science DVD incl Brian Cox commentary available HERE