A Century of Science

BBC News posted what a scientist thinks about we’ve learned in the last hundred years. That’s hardly news.

What’s remarkable is that he didn’t go on to say that the sea will catch fire, or that if we don’t recycle with greater zeal all the birds will die.

In short, that we’re doomed. Doomed! DOOMED, I TELL YOU!!!!!

Not that BBC News goes in for that sort of thing. They’re very British. Even so, an essentially upbeat look at a century of science and technology is somewhat remarkable.

The way I see it, science and technology are tools. Whether we use them to help or hurt each other is up to us. (February 10, 2017)

What is “a Short Time?”

This week’s ‘science’ article is more commentary than news.

It’s a scientist’s view of how science “…transformed our worldview in a short space of time….”

His “short … time” is a century.

I’m not sure how many Americans think of a century as a “short … time.”

I do. But I’ve been interested in science, among other things, since childhood and earned a B. A. in history. What is and is not a short time for me depends on what I’m thinking about at the moment.

I’m probably as twitchy as any American.

That’s something that hasn’t changed here since the 1960s. What’s new is that a sense of urgency above and beyond the call of reason isn’t generally regarded as a virtue.

We may even be more tolerant of folks who aren’t driven to prioritize their career. I see that as an improvement. Mostly.1

Time and Fractions

My country’s history doesn’t go back more than about five centuries.

That’s stretching it.

It’s been just over 241 years since 1776. We called ourselves the United States of America then, emphasis on states.

The Articles of Confederation worked, but not particularly well, from 1781 to 1788. We replaced them with the Constitution in 1788.

We’ve had only one major internal war since then. Many or most Americans call it the Civil war, not the War Between the States. Probably because the Union won, and that’s another topic.

I don’t think we’ll ever get the Constitution exactly ‘right.’ That’s why we add, and occasionally remove, amendments. I think it’s a good effort. Certainly better than ‘my troops captured the palace, so now I’m in charge’ systems.

The point is that my country hasn’t been around for more than about two and a half centuries. A hundred years is a sizeable chunk of that.2

On the other hand, it’s about one tenth as long as England’s current ruling class moved in. Most of them, anyway. I talked about the Normans before.

A colorful lot: Vikings who’d started speaking French, sort of, after deciding the French coast was nicer than where they’d been. I can see their point.

The House of Windsor/Saxe-Coburg and Gotha has held the throne since the 1800s.

The Saxe-Coburg and Gotha folks are Germans, not Normans.

Being German wasn’t good for public relations, so they renamed themselves Windsor in 1917.

A hundred years is about a tenth of English history since 1066.

The thousand years since then is a sizable fraction of how long it’s been since Nebuchadnezzar II had the Ishtar Gate built. That’s about two and a half millennia back.3

The oldest written records we’ve found so far are about five thousand years old. A hundred years is, I think, a short time on that scale.

Nifty Math

All of recorded history is barely a blip on the geologic time scale.

Some Christians, including a few Catholics, seem to assume that our faith requires ardent and unyielding defense of a nice bit of 17th century Bible scholarship.

Ussher’s chronology fixed the day of creation as near the autumnal equinox in the year 4004 BC.

He used the best data available, as well as the firm belief that Earth would last six thousand years.

Ussher was a good Bible-believing Christian, by his standards, and had the best possible reason for assuming that the universe would last exactly six millennia.

It’s in the Bible. Sort of.

2 Peter 3:8 and Psalms 90:4 clearly state that a thousand years is one day, from God’s viewpoint. Genesis 1:31 says God made the universe in six days.

Taking that literally is an option, but I think that’s less than accurate.

Ussher, and some other Christians, apparently assume that the Bible is literally true: by contemporary Western standards. The ‘correct’ standards, of course: as they see them.

I suspect having the ability to ignore poetry and metaphor helps maintain such beliefs.

It’s also an opportunity for using some nifty and fairly simple math. Applying an exact 1-to-1,000 conversion factor to the Genesis account yields the duration of this creation: 6,000 years. Exactly.

It was obvious that creation would last exactly as long from our perspective as it took to make it from God’s. Obvious to Ussher, at least.

He wasn’t a crackpot. Quite a few folks made the same assumption around his time.

These days it’s oddities like creation science that make life interesting for the rest of us. I’ve found that details change, but the general patterns don’t. And that’s yet another topic.

I figure the Bible is true, and that not everyone thinks the way Ussher did.

I don’t expect everyone to be thoroughly purged of poetry. Some folks are actually poets. Many folks use metaphor.

For example, I’ve heard that someone described Alan Ladd as being “ten feet tall.” He wasn’t. At five feet, six inches, he was a bit on the short side for an American man. That’s not the point. His personal strengths made him “ten feet tall” in this person’s eyes.

I don’t assume that folks who wrote the Bible had an American viewpoint.

I don’t even think they saw the world the same way as post-Renaissance Europeans. That doesn’t make them inferior to the British aristocracy or John Calvin. Just different.

I can almost understand Calvinists assuming that Ussher’s Chronology is vital to Christian faith. Ussher was a good Calvinist. Newfangled ideas are — well, they’re new. More to the point, they’re not “Biblical.”

Oddly enough, I’ve yet to run into someone who earnestly believes that North and South America don’t exist because they’re not in the Bible.

Assumptions and the Bible

I’ve explained why I take Sacred Scripture very seriously before.

Also why I think the Bible wasn’t written with a Western mindset, that Adam and Eve aren’t German, and this universe is a whole lot older than a few thousand years.

Basically, I’m a Christian.

I’m also a Catholic, so firmly believing a mix of Aristotelian and Mesopotamian cosmology isn’t required. As usual, I’ve put more links than you’ll probably want to follow near the end of this post.4

I think the Bible is the Word of God, God speaking to us “in a human way.” It has many authors, from many times and cultures, writing in many styles. Each was inspired by God, using “their own faculties and powers.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

Parts of the Bible are in poetic and figurative language. (Catechism, 110, 390)

One of my happier obligations is “…to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures….” (Catechism, 133)

An Eventful Century

(From Royal Society, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Modern inventions often rely on discoveries that are a few hundred years old, says Venki Ramakrishnan”
(BBC News))

How science transformed the world in 100 years
Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, BBC News (October 25, 2017)

In an essay for the BBC, Nobel Prize-winner and Royal Society President Sir Venki Ramakrishnan contemplates the nature of scientific discovery – how it has transformed our worldview in a short space of time, and why we need to be just as watchful today about the uses of research as we’ve ever been….”

BBC News has a reputation for comparatively calm reporting. I didn’t expect to read that we’re all gonna die because we’re thinking too much, or that a wrathful Mother Nature will smite us something dreadful. (September 10, 2017)

But their editorial outlook is far from the ‘science and technology will make the future shiny’ attitude I grew up with.

I think that was no more reasonable than the ‘we’re all gonna die’ outlook that’s currently in vogue. In the more would-be-relevant circles, anyway.

Even so, BBC News is an up-to-date news service, and they’re alert to any whiff of a downside in new developments.

I can’t blame them for that. They’re a news service, and that’s how news services work. Whether it’s how they should work is a topic for another post.

Dr. Ramakrishnan’s attitude was refreshingly reasonable. Whether that’s because he’s only a year younger than I am, or has more sense than some, he apparently doesn’t dread disasters yet to come.

Don’t worry, though. It’s not all good news. He does point out that we decide how we use our knowledge.

I think he makes sense: partly because he apparently believes scaring folks silly isn’t the best way to encourage good behavior.

“…Discoveries themselves are morally neutral, but the use we make of them are not. One discovery that shifted our view of the world in two distinctly divergent directions was nuclear fission. Its discovery led to the development of the most destructive weapons known.

“Some argue that the fear of destruction has been a powerful motivator for peace, but this is hardly a stable solution as can be seen with today’s situation with North Korea. On the other hand, nuclear fission also promised a reliable source of energy that was once optimistically predicted to be ‘too cheap to meter’….”
(Prof. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan)

Finding Answers, and New Questions

(From NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Advances in space exploration have made us more inquisitive about the great unknown”
(BBC News))

“…If we could miraculously transport even the smartest people from around 1900 to today’s world, they would be simply astonished at how we now understand things that had puzzled humans for centuries.

“Just over a hundred years ago, people had no idea how we inherit and pass on traits or how a single cell could grow into an organism.

“They didn’t know that atoms themselves had structure – the word itself means indivisible. They didn’t know that matter has very strange properties that defy common sense. Or why there is gravity. And they had no idea how things began, whether it was life on earth or the universe itself….”
(Prof. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan)

These paragraphs got my attention. It was mainly that “we now understand” phrase.

We’ve got a much better grip on how this universe works than we did in 1900.

But we’ve also found questions we didn’t know about before.

I’m pretty sure we’ll solve those puzzles, too. Eventually. If what’s happened over the last few millennia is any guide, another puzzle or ten will be part of each solution.

I don’t mind a bit, partly because I think learning how things work is a good idea. Besides, I like the idea that we’re just getting started on the puzzle collection we live in.

That “now we understand” thing reminded me of what a science fiction author wrote in one of his non-fiction articles.

After quite correctly highlighting what we’d learned by the mid-20th century, the author wrote something like ‘now that we are in control of the forces of nature.’

Even as an enthusiastic youth, I realized he was overstating his case.

‘Now that We are in Control’

Mt. St. Helens exploded a few decades later.

We’d learned quite a bit by that time, so scientists were certain that an eruption was coming, and had a rough idea when it would happen.

Most folks living or working in that part of North America had time to get out.

Data collected before, during, and after the eruptions helped us learn more.

But over 50 died, including Harry Randall Truman. He could have left, but didn’t. I might not have made the same decision. But I understand his reasons.

He was 83, and had promised his late wife that he’d never leave their home. I’m willing to assume that he believed honor was more important than life. Can’t argue with that. More accurately, I don’t want to.

David A. Johnston knew that staying only 10 kilometers from the summit was risky. He may not have realized how risky.

My guess is that he decided manning an observation post, collecting and sending data, was more important than personal safety. I can understand that.

His last transmission was “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”5

Still Learning

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Discovering the structure of DNA was a ‘big moment’ in science”
(BBC News))

“These days because of fundamental discoveries we can answer or at least begin to answer those mysteries. That has transformed the way we see the world and often our everyday lives. Much of what we take for granted today is a result of an interplay of fundamental science and technology, with each driving the other forward. …”
(Prof. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan)

He says we’ve got a great deal left to learn. On the other hand, he also says we’ve learned a very great deal since about 1900.

That’s pretty obvious, and it’s nice to see someone who’s not in a blind panic over what we’ve accomplished.

I don’t know who illustrated how much we’ve learned in a few generations by imagining a conversation between Julius Caesar and George Washington. My father told me about it, but didn’t say where he’d read it.

The two leaders would have understood each other quite well, if the first Roman emperor had somehow been taken forward about 18 centuries. They came from different cultures, but had a great deal in common.

They’d probably have needed a translator. George Washington’s childhood gave him opportunities to learn practical skills and values, but apparently not Latin.

Their homelands were quite similar, basically. Rome and the 13 colonies had cities, but were agrarian societies. Both had technical and business specialists, but by far most folks lived and worked on farms.

Rome, America, and Comparisons

Washington’s new government was very similar to the Roman Republic’s.

That’s no accident. Rebel leaders knew history, and recognized the Republic’s 500 years as among the most stable and successful governments ever.

Even after the disastrous Final War of the Roman Republic, the Empire retained many of the Republic’s institutions.

Imperial Rome even had a Senate.

Senators retained their VIP status, but had been rendered comparatively harmless. Wise emperors made sure that it looked like they were merely doing the will of the Senate and People of Rome.

Unwise ones make better screenplays, so they’re the ones most Americans know about.

America isn’t ‘Rome 2.0.’

For one thing, our national leaders are a very great deal more restrained and gentle than Rome’s. The current brouhaha is a tea party in comparison.

If we followed the Roman pattern, secret service agents might be openly planning a counterattack on the Treasury.

The attack would be real enough, and would settle an old score. But it would be a diversion, giving assassins an opportunity to eliminate troublesome members of the House Committee on Ways and Means. Roman politics were lively. And not infrequently deadly.

Now let’s imagine that George Washington was pulled forward about two and a half centuries, and talked with a contemporary American president.

America’s basic government institutions would be familiar to George Washington, and he’d understand today’s English well enough. He might even be impressed that no major political figure has killed another for generations.

The Burr-Hamilton Duel happened after his death, but customs making it possible were an accepted part of his culture.

Things could be worse.6

But I think we can do better. I’ll get back to that.

Living in the Will-Be That Was

I’d planned on summarizing what Dr. Ramakrishnan said about the last hundred or so years of science and technology. But it’s been an — interesting — week.

It’s nearly an hour after I like to get these ‘science’ posts done, and I really should get some sleep tonight. Or try to.

So instead, I’ll recommend that you read his essay. He does a pretty good job. Not a thorough one, but that would take a book. It’s been a busy century.

And now for something completely different.

I also recommend visiting an anything-but-scholarly website, David S. Zondy’s Days of Future Past.

It’s his witty look at the future — my impression, your experience may vary — as seen through the eyes of early-to-mid 20th century pulp science fiction artists and popular science editors.

Here’s a sample:

“…Predictions about the future that deal with spaceships and skyscrapers and nuclear-powered gerbil stretchers are all very interesting, but the predictions that really hit home and that we can judge most accurately are those that deal with how we spend our everyday lives, how we eat, where we live, how we work, and how we play.

“Will our living rooms be multi-media lairs, such as shown in the prediction … from 1911? Will our house be plastic bubbles? Will we still cook our own food? How will we make a living? What will we do for fun? Why the blazes are we stretching all these gerbils?…”
Future Living, Tales of Future Past, David S. Zondy

Before you start a ‘save the gerbils’ protest, be aware that to the best of my knowledge no gerbils were harmed in the making of that site.

Don’t get me wrong, humane treatment of animals is a good idea.

It’s also how we should act. And that’s yet again another topic. (November 18, 2016)

I’ve been living in ‘the future’ as imagined in my youth for some time now.

It’s nowhere near as shiny and perfect as some hoped.

On the other hand, we haven’t had a full-scale nuclear war, glaciers aren’t grinding through Scandinavia and Canada on their way toward the equator, and we didn’t all die of disease and starvation after all the fish died.

Some folks apparently still take Ehrlich seriously. I don’t. (January 27, 2017)

Technotopias, Atlantis, and Discovering our Past

I don’t think we will ever have that shiny-bright technotopia some imagined up to around the 1960s.

It’s probably just as well.

I’m not convinced that most folks would really feel at home there.

I’m also quite sure that we’re not nearing the extinction of humanity: after all the cute animals die, of course.

We’ll certainly hit rough patches. That’s a ‘given’ in this world.

But it’s been many millennia since the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

There hasn’t been anything nearly that bad since.

We didn’t know about it until fairly recently. That’s understandable.

Almost no written records survived, partly thanks to the initial devastation.

Also partly because for generations following whatever happened, very few folks west of India could read or write.

Instead of going into a lot of boring detail about unburied bodies littering burned cities, I’ll suggest that you remember your favorite post-apocalypse disaster film. Maybe “Road Warrior.” Or, in a lighter vein, “Hell Comes to Frogtown.”

Then imagine something like that really happening, except with bronze weapons. And no giant mutant frogs.

I suspect folklore that inspired Plato’s Atlantis, tales of the Trojan Wars, and oral traditions we find in Genesis are what various folks managed to pass along.

We’re still not sure about Atlantis. I’m reasonably certain that Plato’s story is fiction.

For one thing, it’s suspiciously tidy. Real events are seldom that dramatically straightforward. My opinion.

I suspect Plato got his ideas from stories folks told about the Thera eruption, whatever set off the Collapse, and added a hefty helping of his own imagination.

I also think Thera exploding just north of Crete at about the same time that Minoan civilization disappeared is probably not a coincidence.

Fun fact: we don’t know what Minoans called themselves.

“Minoan,” a name recalling King Minos in Greek myth, was coined after we started studying what was left of their cities.

My guess is that at least some Minoans, whatever their name was, survived.

While riding a bus in San Francisco, I saw a young man who looked almost exactly like folks on Minoan frescoes. Allowing for Minoan artistic conventions, of course.

Humans have been very good at surviving — for a very long time. I think it helps that we’re large opportunistic omnivores with itchy feet.

We’re not as hard to kill as cockroaches, but we’re a whole lot smarter. And, like I said, we travel. A lot.

We’ve suffered horrific disasters. But even when everyone in one area died, some of us have always been elsewhere.

My guess is that we’ll prove to be as durable as cockroaches. And, eventually, scorpions. (September 30, 2016)

Earth, this Galaxy, and Beyond

For nearly two million years, probably more, some of us have wondered what’s over the next hill: and headed for the horizon.

We started running out of ‘next hills’ on Earth a few generations back.

We’ve only been to Earth’s moon a few times, but I’m quite sure we’ll be back.

We’re well into planning visits to and permanent settlements on, Mars; and recently discovered thousands of planets in our part of this galaxy.

Some of them look quite interesting. I figure it’s just a matter of time before we learn how to go and see what’s there.

That should keep us busy for a few millennia, at least.

It’s not just the distances involved. This is a big galaxy, and we’ve only sampled our immediate neighborhood.

After that — we’ve already charted a very great many other galaxies.

My guess is that if we get bored in the next few million years, it’ll be our fault. Given our track record, I don’t see that happening.

We’ve changed a bit since since some of us left our ancestral homeland, of course. Gotten smarter, too: which I think is a good thing.

Something that’ll probably remain an unanswered question is what the sensible folks who stayed where we were were ‘meant to be’ thought of those who were outward bound.

Maybe they felt sorry for the lunatics, and hoped they’d have the good sense to come back. And that’s still another topic.

Working Together

So far we’ve survived something like two and a half million years of the current ice age. A few thousand years back we developed agriculture and started building cities.

We’ve had assorted natural disasters, wars, and epic catastrophes we’re still not sure about. But we survived. So, after we got them started, did our civilizations.

Things were never exactly the same as they were before. I think that’s evidence that we learn from our mistakes. Eventually.

I can see good points in nearly all earlier efforts at working together. But we’ve never gotten it quite right. I don’t see that as discouraging, since some of us keep trying.

We don’t have a perfect society today. Anywhere.

But I’ve seen real progress over the last half century. Survivors of the last global war, digging out from the rubble, finally decided that enough was enough.

Outfits like NATO were pretty much more of the same: one bunch of leaders agreeing to stop attacking each other long enough to keep another bunch from taking over their territory. That can be a good idea. But it’s nothing new.

We do have some genuinely novel ideas being tested.

The United Nations isn’t perfect.

No surprises there.

But it’s the first time, as far as I remember, that a bunch of nations agreed to cooperate: but not to defend against an attacker, or to be the attackers.

Leaders deciding to try arguing and hurling insults instead of killing each other’s subjects in wholesale lots? That is new.

It’s sort of like empires from Sargon’s to Britain’s: but without one bunch bludgeoning others into joining.

Again, the U. N. isn’t perfect.

Some member states are ‘more equal’ than others, and there’s been a fairly continuous succession of small wars since day one.

But we haven’t had a global conflict since the United Nations Charter went into effect. Not an open one, at least. That is good news.

Just as remarkable, Europe’s national leaders decided to try cooperating instead of slaughtering each other’s citizens.

I don’t know how long the European Union will last, and it’s no more perfect that the United Nations or U. S. Congress.

But that bunch has held off attacking each other for an almost incredibly long time.

Seriously: if they can cooperate, I figure anyone can.

I think Pope John Paul II had a good idea:

“…We must overcome our fear of the future. But we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do so together. The ‘answer’ to that fear is neither coercion nor repression, nor the imposition of one social ‘model’ on the entire world. The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

Building a civilization of love won’t be easy. We’ll never get it ‘just right.’ Getting any practical results is, I suspect, generations away. Maybe centuries. Or longer.

But I think it will be worth the effort. Certainly better than muddling along with the status quo. Or, worse, trying to revive the ‘good old days.’

Does anyone really yearn for cholera pandemics, smallpox, famines, with the occasional army rampaging through the hamlet we call home?

I have got to stop writing and get some sleep.

Now the inevitable links to more posts, mostly why I think cautious optimism — and using our brains — makes sense:

1 Culture and attitudes:

2 Recent history:

3 Not-so-recent history:

4 Accepting reality ‘as is,’ or not:

5 Life, death and decisions:

6 The ‘good old days’ — weren’t:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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