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What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?

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What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?

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What is the one thing everyone should learn about science? Spiked asked 250 scientists - here we bring you some of the most provocative responses Thursday April 7, 2005


Seth Lloyd Professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

You do not have to be a scientist to do science; you can be a child, a computer, or an intelligent rat. As long as you can verify a result, it is part of science.

Freeman Dyson Emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton

Science is about uncertainty. We do not yet know the answers to most of the important questions — nature is smarter than we are. But if we are patient, and not in too much of a hurry, then science gives us a good way to find the answers.

Richard Dawkins Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, and a science writer and broadcaster

I wish everyone understood Darwinian natural selection, and its enormous explanatory power, as the only known explanation of "design". The world is divided into things that look designed, like birds and airliners; and things that do not look designed, like rocks and mountains. Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed, like submarines and tin openers; and those that are not really designed, like sharks and hedgehogs. Darwinian natural selection, although it involves no true design at all, can produce an uncanny simulacrum of true design. An engineer would be hard put to decide whether a bird or a plane was the more aerodynamically elegant.

Lewis Wolpert Emeritus professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is. Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology — from medicine to industry.

Kathy Sykes Collier professor of public engagement in science and engineering at the University of Bristol

I would teach the world that science is not about truth, but is about trying to get closer to the truth. This is important because, too often, people look to scientists as having the "truth". What we have is wrapped in uncertainties, caveats and simplifications.

John Gribbin Astrophysicist and science writer

I cannot improve upon the comment of the American physicist Richard Feynman: "The most important information … is the atomic hypothesis … that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another."

Bernard Lovell Astronomer and founder of Jodrell Bank Observatory

I would teach the world that fundamental scientific research is neutral, but the dividing line between good and evil in the eventual use of the results of research is often thin and tenuous.

In the first half of the 20th century, research into the structure of matter led to a detailed knowledge of atomic structure, and to a knowledge that in certain transmutations, there was a loss of mass. The second world war led to the enormous concentration of tech­nological effort, to convert this knowledge into devastating weapons of mass destruction, instead of providing atomic power for the benefit of humanity. That contrast between the good and the evil, in the eventual use of research, confronts us today.

Simon Baron-Cohen Professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, and director of the Autism Research Centre

I would teach the world that scientists fall in love — with experiments. An experiment can be beautifully stunning. Experiments are not just about proof — some of them have an intrinsic elegance, that you just want to go back to and look at again and again. Take men with two X chromosomes. This puzzle of nature just called out for the experiment, conducted in 1990, to search the two X chromosomes in such individuals — to find a bit of the Y chromosome, that might have broken off and become integrated into one of the X chromosomes. It just had to be there. And sure enough, it was. What we now know to be the SRY gene — the sex-related Y gene — had got into the X chromosome. And this is the gene that turns on the process to grow testes, and become male.

Antony Hoare Senior researcher at Microsoft Corporation

I would teach the world that scientists start by trying very hard to disprove what they hope is true. When they fail, they have a good reason for believing what they hope is true, and can even convince others of its truth. A scientist always acknowledges the possibility of error, and is less likely to be mistaken than one who always claims to be right.

Harry Kroto Professor of chemistry at Sussex University, and joint recipient of the Nobel prize in chemistry

The methods of science are manifestly effective, having made massive humanitarian contributions to society. It is this very effectiveness which the purveyors of mystical philosophies attack, because they recognise in it the chief threat to the belief-based source of their power and financial reward.

Michael Baum Emeritus professor of surgery and visiting professor of medical humanities at University College London, and chairman of the Psychosocial Oncology Committee of the National Cancer Research Institute

I would teach the world that science = imagination + humility². If only politicians were ruled by the scientific prin­ciples of conjectures (hypothesis generation) and refutations (controlled experimentation), then the world would be a better place. To quote the 19th-century British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley: "The tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."

Susan Blackmore Science writer and broadcaster, and visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol

Frighteningly, most people do not understand Darwin's great insight. What people miss is the sheer inevitability of the creative process. Once you see it —copy, vary, select; copy, vary, select —you see that design by natural selection simply has to happen. This is not like Isaac Newton's laws, or quantum physics, or any of the other great theories in science, where one can ask "why is this so?" It simply has to be the case. Then, the scary implications follow. If everyone understood evolution, then the tyranny of religious memes would be weakened, and we little humans might find a better way to live in this pointless universe.

John Sulston One of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, and joint recipient of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine

We have to accept responsibility for the survival of the human race, instead of praying about it. The prize, if we can embrace this humanist philosophy, is an infinite and unimaginably exciting journey ahead of us.

Brian Davies Professor of mathematics at King's College London

Without doubt, the most important single scientific discovery ever made was the connection between electricity and magnetism. This was discov­ered by the 19th-century British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, at the Royal Institution in London; and it was systematised by the 19th-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, at King's College London.

This discovery led directly to the electric motor and dynamo — the basis of all electrical power — and also to telephones, radio, television, and computers, upon all of which advanced civilisation now depends.

Eric Drexler Founder and emeritus chair of the Foresight Institute, and inventor of the term 'nanotechnology'

Physical technology evolves towards limits set by physical law, and a technology approaching the limits set by physical law must build with atomic precision. Molecular machinery provides a way to accomplish this.

In today's biological cells and in future manufacturing, large molecular structures can fit together and work together, forming molecular machine systems.

Marcus du Sautoy Professor of mathematics at Oxford University, presenter of the BBC TV programme Mind Games

I would teach the world how the Greeks proved, more than 2,000 years ago, that there are infinitely many prime numbers. In my mind, this discovery is the beginning of mathematics — when humankind realised that, by pure thought alone, it could prove eternal truths of the universe.

Prime numbers are the indivisible numbers, numbers that can be divided only by themselves and one. They are the most important numbers in mathematics, because every number is built by multiplying prime numbers together — for example, 60 = 2 x 2 x 3 x 5. They are like the atoms of arithmetic, the hydrogen and oxygen of the world of numbers.

Stanley Feldman Emeritus professor of anaesthesiology at Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School

I would like it to be universally known that whatever we eat, it is broken down into basic building blocks of food in the gut, before it can be absorbed into the blood.

The cholesterol in the food you eat is not the same cholesterol as that in your blood. Whatever meat you eat — whether it be prime organic Angus, or chopped-up scrag end from an old cow — it ends up as the same amino acids in your blood. No matter what the source of the fat, it is essentially the same fatty acids that enter the bloodstream. We are not what we eat.

Richard Fortey Senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and science writer

Everyone should know about plate tectonics. We all relate to our own landscape — it is what gives us our sense of homeland. Yet the ultimate controls on the shape of the Earth are based upon the slow movement of the tectonic plates. To understand these geological forces gives us all a new respect for our planet — an awareness of how it has been sewed together over 4,000m years, and how it continually remakes itself.

Through geology, we understand our identity. It is sad that geology is sometimes regarded as a "dry" science, for it underlies everything. Geology is a kind of unconscious mind for the world.

Lynne Frostick Professor of physical geography at the University of Hull, and director of the Hull Environment Research Institute and the Environmental Technologies Centre for Industrial Collaboration

I would like to teach the world about climate change, and the role of every human being in causing it. This is far and away the biggest threat to our planet. We will only fight the more serious consequences of climate change if every individual accepts responsibility, and if every individual modifies their behaviour.

Robert Garfinkle Lunar section historian at the British Astronomical Association

I would teach the world the famous quote, attributed to Galileo Galilei, eppur si muove — Latin for "but still it moves". It lays the groundwork for understanding the Earth–moon–sun system. Without this orbiting triangle, life as we know it might not even exist on Earth.

I would want my students of science to understand that from this simple 17th-century quote flows all of our knowledge of our place in the local universe. Our movement about the sun creates our seasons, and gives us the joy of the changing night sky. The changing seasons, in conjunction with the movement of the moon around the Earth and — to a lesser extent — around the sun as well, cause the tides, ocean currents, and worldwide temperature and atmospheric pressure variations, thus causing the weather and ocean movements. This movement helps to promote life in the seas, and the formation of rain clouds — basic building blocks for all life.

Peggy Lemaux Cooperative extension specialist in plant biotechnology at the University of California at Berkeley

I would nominate the basic formula for photosynthesis: CO2 + H2O + sunlight/chlorophyll —> O2 + C6H12O6. Why is this so important? Because without this chemistry, life on earth would not be possible. Glucose (C6H12O6) is the basic energy source for all living organisms. The oxygen released as a photosynthetic byproduct, principally of phytoplankton, provides most of the atmospheric oxygen vital to respiration in plants and animals. And animals, in turn, produce carbon dioxide (C02) necessary for plants. Therefore, photosynthesis is consid­ered the ultimate source of life for nearly all plants and animals, by providing the energy required to drive their metabolic processes. Without this important reaction, life on this planet would cease.

Dr Robert Maynard Senior medical officer at the UK Department of Health

The principle of refutation put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper, in his books The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations, is my choice. Popper argued that scientific knowledge advanced most reliably by the development and refutation of hypotheses — much more reliably than by the accretion of evidence in support of theories.

He said you cannot prove that all swans are white by counting white swans, but you can prove that not all swans are white by counting one black swan. Popper's approach is now accepted, in principle, by many scientists. And yet much research is still based upon induction — upon the collection of facts to support our ideas. Erecting hypotheses that can be falsified, and designing experiments capable of doing so, is the hallmark of the true scientist. In fact, it distinguishes the scientist from the non-scientist.

John McCarthy Emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford University, and inventor of the term 'artificial intelligence'

Find the numbers, and compare them. As the physicist Lord Kelvin said in 1883, in a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, "when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind".

Channapatna S Prakash Professor in plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, and director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research

I would teach the world not to be afraid of the genetic modification of our crops, and to accept GM crops, as they can help to feed the growing world in an environmentally sustainable manner. There is much apprehension and confusion about this technology, especially in Europe. This has led to the needless slowdown of the application of biotechnology in agriculture.

If the world were to embrace GM crops, then we could conquer hunger and poverty much more easily, cut down the use of chemicals on farms, help mitigate the cutting down of tropical forests to expand the area of agriculture, bring more reliability to farming, make farming more profitable, help developing countries through crops that are hardier and tolerant to drought, improve food safety, and improve the nutrition of crops. GM crops are as safe as conventionally developed crops. The fear of this technology is unnecessarily holding back progress, and is denying the fruits of that progress to the developing world, where it is needed the most.

Martin Rees Astronomer Royal and professor of cosmology, and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge

I'd like to widen people's awareness of the tremendous timespan lying ahead — for our planet, and for life itself. Most educated people are aware that we're the outcome of nearly 4bn years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. Our sun, however, is less than halfway through its lifespan. It will not be humans who watch the sun's demise, 6bn years from now. Any creatures that exist then will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.

Our concern with Earth's future is, understandably, focused upon the next 100 years at most — the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. But awareness of this longer time horizon, and the immense potential that human actions this century could foreclose, offers an extra motive for proper stewardship of this planet.

Matt Ridley Founding chair of the International Centre for Life

Science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries. Science increases the store of wonder and mystery in the world; it does not erode it. The myth that science gets rid of mysteries, started by the Romantic poets, was well nailed by Albert Einstein —whose thought experiments about relativity are far more otherworldly, elusive, thrilling, and baffling than anything dreamt up by poets.

Isaac Newton showed us the mysteries of deep space, Charles Darwin showed us the mysteries of deep time, and Francis Crick and James D Watson showed us the mysteries of deep encoding. To get rid of those insights would be to reduce the world's stock of awe.

Roderich Tumulka Researcher in physics at the Mathematics Institute at the University of Tübingen

Paranormal phenomena do not exist. Magic, witchcraft, mind-reading, clairvoyance, faith healing and similar practices do not work and never have worked. It makes a crucial difference whether we imagine ourselves surrounded by supernatural beings and happenings or whether instead we see ourselves in a world that science can help us understand. Many scientific principles, concepts, or discoveries need not, despite their importance, be understood by the public, but just by the experts. The question of the paranormal is different in this respect.

Stuart Zola Professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Emory University, and director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre

I would teach the world the importance of staying actively intellectually engaged throughout our lives, especially as we become elderly. There are good data now that point to the fact that continuing to challenge yourself late in life — taking up a new hobby, learning to play a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, etc — actually helps to maintain cognitive function, and protects against the onset of cognitive decline.

Gerardus 't Hooft Professor of theoretical physics at Utrecht University and joint recipient of the Nobel prize in physics, for his work on the quantum structure of electroweak interactions

Is it really true that the world wants to hear only one thing about science? And then continue after that, with its ongoing religious, superstitious and political disputes? Maybe the world wants to hear only one thing from me. What could that be? All the important things that the world has already heard from my colleagues might be incomplete — my colleagues may have forgotten to tell the world something. What could that be? I do not know.

· This research was carried out by Sandy Starr at spiked and supported by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta). The full results will be published at at the end of April, alongside an online debate and a series of films made by the science communicator Alom Shaha. A debate will take place at the Royal Institution in London on the evening of Tuesday 10 May, bringing together some of the scientists who took part. To book tickets, telephone the Royal Institution on 020 7409 2992. Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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