Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Are we losing opportunities for scientific curiosity and wonder?

This year has been designated International Year of Astronomy by UNESCO and IAU prompted by the 400th anniversary of Galileo's detection of the moon's of Jupiter with his telescope. Since then, great strides have been made in establishing the proportions and locations of the Earth, Sun, planets and stars; but day by day it is getting harder and harder to see these objects for ourselves. Light pollution is preventing any town or city dweller from relishing the dark night sky, and with this change, the young generation is growing up not having had the chance to experience for themselves the sheer numbers of pricks of light in the sky, and so begin to wonder what it all is, how big it is, and how it got there. Without wondering, curiosity does not follow – first the question, then the investigation.

The night sky is not the only area which is losing the capacity to inspire the naturally questioning mind of the young child. Lack of time and fear of strangers is keeping children inside, or in groups, and not able to see for themselves the way flowers grow, the way insects behave and examine other natural phenomena found in any garden – and then stop and think about it. Or they are being taught what to look at on scheduled expeditions, instead of discovering questions for themselves from their own observations. We do not seem in danger of losing new mavericks to challenge the conventional wisdom, but there is a real chance that such people will become more and more remote from “ordinary people” who will not have the context and experiences to connect with them.

We are making an artificial environment which will isolate us even further from the real world, its physics and chemistry. Driving everywhere is even lessening the effect of the weather on our own development. We are in danger of considering nature only as something to be controlled and modified, and not something we are part of and should be worked with.

When was the last time you saw the Milky Way and stopped to think about it? If the International Year of Astronomy leads more people to do that, then maybe they will begin to realise the ecological trade-offs we must make to survive on this pale blue dot

1 comment:

David Flint said...

Is it just me or has science become more difficult because more remote from experience? I'm thinking particularly of subatomic physics and cosmology. Quantum mechanics is an extraordinary achievement but the interpretations seem deeply paradoxical. You can use it but you can't understand it.

The cosmologists talk of dark matter, dark energy, strings and the brane to explain the origin and expansion of the universe (or multiverse). If the only way to explain things is through 14 dimensional objects - most of whose dimensions can't be observed - haven't we gone wrong somewhere? Perhaps we're back where physics was in the 1890s - waiting for a new paradigm!