(Scientists' Institute for Public Information)
February 10, 1982
Amid the surge in popular science in journals, electronic media, and the social rounds, lies a deeper issue. It is the people’s sciencethe understanding about science and its uses which compose, indeed, enable, so much of modern life. This doesn't make the headlines like “black hole darkens,” “genes spliced into atoms,” “water discovered in hydrates.” For one thing, the people’s science is where science eventually becomes technology and engineering. There, it serves people materially, just as in its primary form science enhances understanding and widens vision and serves people spiritually. But serving materially gets complicated by economics and emotions, in health and food and freedom through national security. So journalists and media makers, with their time and space pressures, find it hard to dig in and to see what the underlying science and discovery mean. So that is why the Scientists' Institute for Public Information so wisely seeks to inform about science, beyond its content. As to content, no scientist nowadays can master all that. Indeed, the strategy of science is to build on its integrity and ethics a confidence that its fields can be honestly and humbly represented by their masters. Although, thus, no one needs to know everything, everyone can know something. And the best of those who increase knowing, often do it by finding knowledge made by others and using it in new ways.
But these very living conditions are the essence of the people’s science and technology, in the developed and even developing world nowadays. But these qualities of science and technology bring out the other focus of this evening. For Dr. Lewis Thomas beautifully creates the peoples science in rejecting a “popular science” and in showing how learning and discovering in fact, take us ever deeper into mystery and complexity. This happens in the very time and way that they take us ever higher into understanding and material advance.
So this is why the people of a free society should be told that science and technology are open-ended, unsettled, undefined, unconstrained by dogma, doctrine, or past deed. That is the great lesson to be learned, the great message to be said.
Thus writing about science, and also its biotechnical and biomedical derivatives, wherein the Lives of a Cell and the lives of humankind blend in marvelous congeniality, is the way to help the people’s science. And what does this help do? It leads to faith as well as to understanding, that the ways of research and development can indeed address the people’s deepest needs.
We mean then that the discipline thus coming from our people’s expectations for excellence will couple with the ethos of science and scholarship. Then the best thought and originality, imagination and infinite painstaking care of experiment, will combine to give new knowledge and new science.
Then we find a wonderful result. It can really be assured from the work of the last decades of this century, although it was foreseen by the work of more than a century ago. This is the result that so many of us here have used our lives to assure. It is that once the new knowledge is found, once critiques and standards of science have been met, the technology can be achieved.
Now herein is the great need for communication and information to the public. For the trend of these troubled and turbulent times has been to demand the technology, the cure for cancer, the synthetic fuel, the unbreakable glass, the nonfattening food, without having the basic knowledge for it. But when we wrote, in the White House Science Office of Dr. Killian, at the direction of President Eisenhower, the Space Primer in 1958, we forced our minds and words to hold to what was known and what could be put together from that. We didn't know how things would turn out in putting them together, but we did know how they could turn out. We used the known. Thanks to Newton and Maxwell and Bohr and Thompson and Rutherford and their science hosts (including those who were new at the time like Bardeen, Brattain, Shockley and the solid state electronics that regulated flight and communications, and Stibitz, von Neumann, Aiken, Eckert and Mauchley and Shannon who made digital machines do what the people needed for rockets, we got the satellites and missiles for shields against oppression and collective tyranny. These measures, coupled with the overarching bravery and confidence of the astronauts, appear in the triumph of the shuttle and in the technology and discovery of the Space Age.
One has to think without limit about where this knowledge, on which it all was based, resides or can be found. One's own experience inevitably intrudes. Winslow and I some years before there was an ICBM warhead to be reentered without melt-down or precious astronaut to be reentered without incineration, were studying the way that hydrogen and oxygen came off the carbon in a macromolecular network. We didn't know that the wonderful electronic resonance structures, whose electromagnetic properties we were primarily probing, could provide a heat shield at cosmic velocities for objects reentering the earth's atmosphere from outer space.
But then the challenge of another nation's missiles, using other cruder but dangerous warheads, forced our President (Eisenhower) to seek a counter-force. Our Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council called on our population of scientists and engineers to conceive the best techniques; we forwarded the notion of ablative heat shields. These did not protect by their own inertness, but rather by a subtle chemistry and physics of conversion by 7000º and more of temperature and oxygen exposure. They are still, except for the shuttle body, the protection for all reentering bodies.
So we see that no one can confine the uses of knowledge, or even more the needs for it, despite the trends of nowadays which over-regulate, over-contain, over-limit or people will envision and attempt. This idea of useful knowledge will flourish and be followed only when the nature of science and its uses are conveyed with the precision and care of the SIPI.
And nowadays, we have even new frontiers of thought and discovery, added to the great traditions of science to which we have referred. These are software science and technology, the formulation of actions and concepts which are expressed by digital machine, by computer processing, by the management of language and graphics and formulas, and hence, models of human systems. Here the scope of ingenuity and mentality may be even wider than in our study of the “real” world. Here the realms of neurophysiology, of sensing and reaction, which Dr. Thomas touches on so skillfully in writing about biology and life processes, get reflected in the electronic logic and memory which we configure to yield the processes of computers. Here we hardly know how far we can reach out beyond our exertion of the brain. But we do know that new, far distant concepts of language, thought and meaning beckon.
The people's science thus leads into the frontiers of thought, but connects back steadily into living places and livelihoods of all. Only a lively and wise program to inform about the ways of science, and not its fantasies or content complexities, can lead our nation to believe in research and development. The conventional shrieksthat technology has caused pollution, that the air is being lost to the autoare sad but bombastic examples of ignorance of what science is and how it works. Our findings recently that nearly 80% of the hydrocarbon-based air components east of the Mississippi come from natural vegetation and foliage is a sober reminder that the rulings of the 70's about the role of automobile exhaust in the Eastern region were often regulatory imagination.
But let us quickly add that whatever the eventual realities of technical conditions may be, there is no excuse for failing to find out, for failing to apply the scientific and technical ways to know about public health, the environment, energy, security, jobs, and resources. Two decade's ago, just before he returned to live in Britain, and after his message on the two cultures was widely known, Lord (C. P.) Snow had a radio colloquium with a couple of us entitled, “The Moral Unneutrality of Science.” Then we spoke about the limitations of science in its service to our people. We said that for the scientist “best to labor in the macrocosmos of the world outside their laboratories and libraries” that “above all, they must gain public trust and understanding, even though, because of its inner qualities, political and social judgments derived from science may be less perfect than expected.” We went on to explain the situation then., which is unchanged or even accented now two decades later. It is that there are “special limits on science and technology. To state it baldly, scientifically there are limits on truth, there are limits on certainty, and there are limits on discovery itself. Maybe the limit on certainty is the most important to explore here. Scientific findings, scientific facts, are usually thought of as symbols of certainty. But people must realize that these findings are certain only with respect to a particular frame of reference. That frame of reference is, broadly, the present state of knowledge or the present position of scientific thought on the matter.”
Understanding by our people of these uncertainties, these limitations by examples of the scientific and technical activities of our times, is the work of SIPI. It will have high values for both the national pursuit of science and engineering and for the sense of mission and worthiness of the scientists and technologists themselves. As brought out by the recent conference of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which intends to commit at least $15 million in the next five to seven years for small private liberal arts colleges to expand their teaching of people who will not “be alienated by a technological society.”