Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Aaaaargh!

Honestly - "Aaaaargh!" Can I really not think of a better title?

No, not this morning - an alternative using the words I'm thinking would probably be unpublishable.

Yesterday's blog was also entitled "Aaaaargh!" For different reasons - which I will get onto later - but yesterday's blog DESPITE SAVING IT DURING A BRIEF WINDOW WITH INTERNET IN LONDON YESTERDAY LUNCHTIME disappeared overnight. All those words and pictures evaporated off the screen. So this is definitely an "Aaaaargh!" moment.

"Aaaaargh!" x2 if you like.

And there's a big Grrr! prowling through my head trying to remember why I was thinking "Aaaaargh!" yesterday. It started with a benign quote with eight of the most inspirational words I have ever read -

Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known
Carl Sagan

I grew up watching Sagan's wonderful television series, Cosmos. It was perfect - from the velvety enthusiasm of his voice, through the incredible artistry of the space photography, to the magical, haunting music by Vangelis.  Sagan was a Pullitzer Prize-winning writer and scientist who could explain science as though it were the easiest thing to understand; his erudite breakdown of complex ideas about space and time, into simple, easy to digest bites was a gift. Even now, I stand beneath the stars on clear nights - waiting for Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins to 'be good boys' - wondering about our place in the universe. Wondering. Feeling small. Bathing in the strangely comforting, awesome vastness of the heavens - noting with guilty relief that nothing really matters. Does it?

We ride through space on this small planet, on a journey that none of us can change. We had a beginning very late in the timeline of the universe's history - very very late (I hate the double very; more on that later) - and we will have an end. But our inexorable slide along our planet's timeline, will be more comfortable if we do our care-taking job well.

... Can you begin to see where I was going with my "Aaaaargh!" yesterday?

Planet-husbandry.

Yes! Hmm. Mankind's education in planet husbandry is patchy. However, putting aside one or two notable, dangerous exceptions - for a paragraph or two - it is improving.

With all the pro-science marching in recent weeks you could be forgiven for thinking that the world has become a society united in its enthusiasm for enquiry and understanding. United a little, perhaps and certainly more than it was in the past. But wholly united? No - if you thought that, you would be wrong. Too often, today, scientists are forced into being the doomsayers and the tellers of unpopular truths - more accustomed to the throwing of metaphorical stones than global adulation. The race towards populism has in some countries dragged with it a rigid denunciation and fear of things that are either too difficult to understand or too inconvenient for the preferred and proffered doctrines. 

Does science matter? Think about it. Where in your life do you meet science?  I'll show you, in six pictures, where I meet it in mine - 


Where is the science in a pile of stones?
It's in the gravity that pulls them together. You don't need to understand gravity. But I'm assuming you know it exists. We use it all the time. Walking, exercising, cycling, placing items on a table and expecting them to stay there. Gravity also keeps all the water in the loch beyond the stack of stones. And it pulls the stones down into the water when they tumble in a game of who-can-knock-over-the-pile-of-stones-by-throwing-another-stone game. 
Without gravity everything on the earth would just be space dust.




Where is the science in a shadow-picture of me and Littlest? It's in the light that hits our backs and stops. Light that creates not only shadows but also rainbows. That travels through space from distant stars. That bounces off the moon at night. That gives colour to everything we see.  That reacts with chlorophyll in plants to drive the photosynthesis that ultimately feeds us. That provides us with energy when it hits solar panels. But light too that perplexingly elongates Littlest's shadow while doing the opposite to mine; it always does this - I wonder if there is a scientific explanation ...




What about this? The science, here, is in the engineering and maths and architecture that positions and juxtaposes and incorporates disparate materials in buildings that don't fall down.




Where is the science in Littlest on a bicycle? The clouds? - well, yes. The tarmac on the road? - yes, okay, but not what I was thinking. The plantation of trees contributing to the water cycle while also photosynthesising - yes, those too. The engineering behind the crash-tested helmet? - yes, absolutely! But ... The bicycle - it's brakes - the rubber of the tyres - the structure of the frame? - yes to all, but they were also not dependent on the specific science I was considering. Where science meets with a family of asthmatics is in the inhalers that allow us to breathe. When we can breathe, we can cycle.




So far so plausible - science meeting life. So why now is there a delightful post-swim-in-the-river picture of Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins? One look at their pedigrees or chat to their breeders would be enough to convince a sceptic that there is a very exact science to the breeding of dogs, some of whose siblings and ancestors are breed champions.




Finally, I give you a picture of a sunset. Where is the science in this? No, I haven't gone back to light waves. Instead, the science here is in my pocket. In the small black block that performs acts of magic every day. I call it magic rather than science because, although I know it is science, I understand so little of it that it might as well be magic. It allows me to talk to friends; to track where they are; to read the news; to get un-lost when I've taken a wrong turning; to book train tickets; to access the biggest library that the world has ever possessed; to check on how my fitbit tracker rates my week's exercise (... not impressed; encouraging but could do better); to see a weather forecast; to learn a new language; to play games (if I ever wanted to) and to take, edit, crop and post photographs like this one.
Even if you are a science sceptic I bet you know where your mobile phone is. And that you use it. In other words, you use and rely upon science. Every day.




Science matters. I know I said nothing really matters earlier but that was referring to me standing looking at the stars, feeling small and inserting the word really between nothing and matters and defining nothing as all the little problems and upsets and worries that make my muscles tense and my head ache. Science on the other hand matters. We meet it in everything we do. We just have to recognise it.

What is science?

Tim Minchin - poet, songwriter, singer, awesome elfin philosopher and wordsmith - defined it thus: "Science is simply the word we use to describe a method of organising our curiosity."

And ... hinting at why I might be thinking "Aaaaargh!"... , Douglas Adams said "I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day."

Ignorance - particularly deliberate ignorance, or a construct of ignorance, or ignorance spread through fear - is exactly why I am thinking "Aaaaargh!" 

Ignorance. As a sort of aside - sort of because the aside will become the subject shortly - I said I would return to very very. I hate this identical twinning of weakly enforcing adverbs. I haven't always hated it and have over-used it in speech myself, but when it is seemingly the only adverb in the astonishingly limited vocabulary of the chief Twit, it becomes more irritating than a lunchpack full of wasps. Almost as irritating as bigly, or the soup of words and half finished phrases that splutter chaotically from his lips. He verbally ricochets from spite to gibberish to contradiction to downright lie. His vocabulary is apparently on a level with most nine year olds. But paradoxically it helps him. In a world wary of fake news nothing spoken so plainly and so without intellectual depth could possibly be fake - could it?

If his words make me want to scream "Aaaaargh!" it's his attitude toward science and climate change that make me actually do so.

Science is in us, with us, around us and will determine out future. But it will only determine our future well if we fund it well. No pulling the budget on global health - no false news against vaccinations - no rolling back of environmental policies to enable the extraction and burning of dirty fossil fuels - no denial of the truth that is climate change - no turning against the Paris Agreement - and no rushing in the name of populism to secure jobs in polluting industries by reversing years of good science. "Aaaaargh!"

One truth remains - somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known. Always. (... I'm not referring to incredible meant-to-be-secret truths shared with diplomats from foreign semi-hostile lands!)
To find the incredible somethings, we need to nurture science and scientists; we need to stay alive and we need to look after our planet.
Why don't we all practice planet-husbandry now?! In Noam Chomsky's words - "The general population doesn't know what's happening and it doesn't even know that it doesn't know."
Perhaps, it's up to us to tell them. 



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