In Praise of Science and Technology by Carl Sagan

Topics: Maxwell's equations, James Clerk Maxwell, Technology Pages: 5 (1766 words) Published: November 23, 2011
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the largely self-educated British physicist Michael Faraday was visited by his monarch, Queen Victoria. Among Faraday's many celebrated discoveries, some of obvious and immediate practical benefit, were more arcane findings in electricity and magnetism, then little more than laboratory curiosities. In the traditional dialogue between heads of state and heads of laboratories, the Queen asked Faraday of what use such studies were, to which he is said to have replied, "Madam, of what use is a baby?" Faraday had an idea that there might someday be something practical in electricity and magnetism.

In the same period the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell set down four mathematical equations, based on the work of Faraday and his experimental predecessors, relating electrical charges and currents with electric and magnetic fields. The equations exhibited a curious lack of symmetry, and this bothered Maxwell. There was something unaesthetic about the equations as then known, and to improve the symmetry Maxwell proposed that one of the equations should have an additional term, which he called the displacement current. His argument was fundamentally intuitive; there was certainly no experimental evidence for such a current. Maxwell's proposal had astonishing consequences. The corrected Maxwell equations implied the existence of electromagnetic radiation, encompassing gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared and radio. They stimulated Einstein to discover Special Relativity. Faraday and Maxwell's laboratory and theoretical work together have led, one century later, to a technical revolution on the planet Earth. Electric lights, telephones, phonographs, radio, television, refrigerated trains making fresh produce available far from the farm, cardiac pacemakers, hydroelectric power plants, automatic fire alarms and sprinkler systems, electric trolleys and subways, and the electronic computer are a few devices in the direct evolutionary line from the arcane laboratory puttering of Faraday and the aesthetic dissatisfaction of Maxwell, staring at some mathematical squiggles on a piece of paper. Many of the most practical applications of science have been made in this serendipitous and unpredictable way. No amount of money would have sufficed in Victoria's day for the leading scientists in Britain to have simply sat down and invented, let us say, television. Few would argue that the net effect of these inventions was other than positive. I notice that even many young people who are profoundly disenchanted with Western technological civilization, often for good reason, still retain a passionate fondness for certain aspects of high technology-for example, high-fidelity electronic music systems.

Science and technology may be in part responsible for many of the problems that face us today -but largely because public understanding of them is desperately inadequate (technology is a tool, not a panacea), and because insufficient effort has been made to accommodate our society to the new technologies. Considering these facts, I find it remarkable that we have done as well as we have. Luddite alternatives can solve nothing. More than one billion people alive today owe the margin between barely adequate nutrition and starvation to high agricultural technology. Probably an equal number have survived, or avoided disfiguring, crippling or killing diseases because of high medical technology. Were high technology to be abandoned, these people would also be abandoned. Science and technology may be the cause of some of our problems, but they are certainly an essential element in any foreseeable solution to those same problems-both nationally and planet wide.

For each problem we have uncovered, such as the effect of halocarbons on the ozonosphere, might there not be another dozen lurking around the corner? It is therefore an astonishing fact that nowhere in the federal government,...
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