Why is Science Important?

Yesterday, I had a Q&A session with students in Brazil in which I was asked why science is important. I brought up two reasons.

First, science is about collaboration and sharing of knowledge. In any country around the world, I have scientific colleagues that I can collaborate with. This mode of cooperation is in stark contrast to politics which often separates people of different nationalities or ethnic origins and claims privileges in order to gain advantage relative to other people.

When quantum entanglement or spacetime curvature were discovered, they were not kept secret at the discretion of the leader of the country where they were found. This scientific knowledge was acquired collaboratively a century ago out of pure curiosity about the nature of elementary particles and their interactions. It was shared openly with all humans, irrespective of national borders or ethnic origin. The sharing of scientific knowledge has practical benefits. It allows accelerated innovation in applying science to practical use. The technology of quantum computers is based on the principles of quantum entanglement and the accuracy of the Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigation is based on our understanding of spacetime curvature.

Second, science is about understanding the reality that we all share. It allows us to adapt to challenging circumstances or develop tools to cope with them. For example, identifying the origin of COVID-19 as a virus allows us to develop vaccines that reduce the number of deaths from it. Understanding the orbits of the planets around the Sun allows us to design space missions that would reach them.

For both reasons, our quality of life improves as a result of scientific products. It makes little sense to enjoy the benefits of technological gadgets like cell phones or computers, while dismissing science as an occupation of the elite on social media outlets communicated by these gadgets. Indeed, the academic community sometimes places blinders and slows-down innovation because of echo-chambers or prejudice of self-promoting experts who wish to explain everything based on past knowledge. But this is no different from admitting that the friction with air slows down the motion of birds. Yes, it is true. But without air, birds would never fly. Gladly, birds are smart enough to work out a compromise, whereby they propel themselves forward with wings that push more air backwards than forward and overcome the frontal force that slows them down. Similarly, scientific innovators are smart enough to propel their discoveries forward with academic resources, by more than their friction with conservative colleagues. Carl Sagan is widely quoted as saying: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, but the truth known to all innovators is that “extraordinary conservatism leads to extraordinary ignorance” and also “extraordinary evidence sometimes requires extraordinary funding.”

Since basic science is the lifeblood of new technologies that benefits all of us, how can we accelerate the rate of progress?

First, we must promote private sector funding of innovative research which is not held back by the traditional friction within academia. Second, we must cultivate systems of education, funding and awards, which benefit innovators more than builders of echo chambers. Third, we should foster international collaborations and sharing of scientific knowledge worldwide.

I am not naïve enough to believe that full international collaboration on all frontiers of science and technology will happen overnight. But it must happen in the long run if we want to raise humanity’s ranking in the class of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. The reason is simple. In order for our descendants to survive beyond the next billion years — after which the Sun will extinguish life-as-we-know-it on Earth, humanity must venture into space.

The challenges of adapting to new environments in space would be vast, far greater than the challenge of leaving the jungles of Africa to inhabit tech-rich cities — which our predecessors accomplished in the span of the last hundred thousand years. Survival of the fittest in interstellar space requires the tools of advanced science and technology.

For long-term survival, we must figure out how to repair and augment the human body so that our future astronauts will have a lifetime of millions of years in interstellar space. This would lead to an exponential growth in the population of interstellar spacecraft. The doubling time could be as short as 100,000 years, the travel time of our existing chemical rockets to the habitable planets around the nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri. Over merely 5 million years, the lifespan of the human species so far, interstellar astronauts could go through 40 doublings. Starting with a single craft might yield 2 to the power of 40 spacecraft in 5 million years. This amounts to a trillion spacecraft which could target all the habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy.

Sharing our scientific knowledge with all intelligent beings in interstellar space could be a natural extension of our international scientific endeavor on Earth. Expanding the scientific program from international to interstellar also offers a grander benefit from reciprocity. One of our destinations might include a civilization which made scientific discoveries that exceed our knowledge. In that case, we could learn from them.

Here’s hoping that the friction that interstellar explorers will encounter with nay-sayers or bureaucrats who want them to focus all resources on their home planet, might be overcome by the fruits of interstellar wisdom. Ad Astra!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial”.