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Starts With A Bang

You Don’t Need A Scientific Hero To Love Science

As individuals, we scientists are all flawed. But the enterprise of science rises above our individual shortcomings.

The enterprise of science is perhaps the greatest achievement in all of human history. Out of the seeming chaos of our terrestrial lives, we’ve managed to determine the fundamental, universal laws that underpin all of reality. We know what every macroscopic object is composed of, right down to the smallest indivisible particles that exist in nature. We understand the way they interact and can accurately describe the forces that arise between them.

We know where the Universe came from, how it evolved to be the way it is today, and where it’s headed in the future. We know how planets form around stars, what the conditions are for life to arise, and once it begins, how it persists and evolves over billions of years. For the first time in human history, the question of where our physical reality comes from — a long-time question for philosophers, poets, and theologians — has been definitively answered: by science.

The earliest stages of the Universe, before the Big Bang, are what set up the initial conditions that everything we see today has evolved from. This was Alan Guth’s big idea: cosmic inflation, which gave rise, after 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution, to the Universe we inhabit today. (E. SIEGEL, WITH IMAGES DERIVED FROM ESA/PLANCK AND THE DOE/NASA/ NSF INTERAGENCY TASK FORCE ON CMB RESEARCH)

These achievements didn’t come about from just one person, no matter how intellectually gifted they were. Neither Newton nor Einstein nor Feynman nor Hawking knew it all. Moreover, all had serious flaws when it came to both their professional careers and their interpersonal conduct. While there are a great many figures who may be inspirational to you, personally, none of them can stand up to the wonders achieved by the enterprise of science itself.

The ability to investigate any natural phenomenon in a quantitative fashion — to subject it to scientific experiments, measurements, and observations in a controlled and well-calibrated fashion — enables us to understand how any physical system responds under a variety of conditions. By valuing and investing in that understanding, and applying what we learn to the policy decisions we make, we can build a society superior to the one we have now. In some ways, we’ve already gotten it right.

Police block traffic on the southbound Glenn Highway north of Anchorage, Alaska, in response to severe highway damage caused near Mirror Lake by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake at 8:29 a.m. Nov. 30, 2018. The quake caused massive structural damage in Anchorage and neighboring communities, but there was no loss of life or serious injury. (GETTY)

On November 30th, 2018, a potentially catastrophic earthquake struck Anchorage, Alaska. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just 7 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest and most populous city. Roads were torn apart, buildings shook and rocked, ceilings fell and pipes broke, and much more. Major infrastructure damage, as well as severe damage to many homes and buildings, was well-documented. For a brief time, there was a tsunami warning as well, although that was canceled shortly thereafter.

And yet there was an incredible silver lining, despite more energy being released in this Earthquake than in the atomic bombs used against Japan in World War II. No one was killed. Despite all the property damage, the strength of the quake, and the close proximity of the epicenter to a city of approximately 300,000 people, there were no deaths from this earthquake. The reason why is a tremendous triumph of good science being used to make good policy.

Damage caused by the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, of magnitude 9.2, resulted in over 100 deaths and over $100 million of property damage. Bridges, railroads, roads, equipment, buildings and more were destroyed, leading to the adoption of radical policy changes to make a rebuilt Anchorage far more resilient against inevitable, future natural disasters. (USGS)

Back in 1964, the largest recorded earthquake in North American history struck Prince William Sound in Alaska, reaching magnitude 9.2 on the Richter scale. The damage was catastrophic, but well-documented by the USGS. A total of 139 people died from that event, including the subsequent tsunami that caused fatalities as far away as California. While over $100 million in property damage was caused, a concerted rebuilding effort was made, the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center was formed, and new codes were both put into place and enforced for construction.

But this time, the buildings in Anchorage were compliant with the revamped building codes. Advice was given (and heeded) as far as which locations must not be built on. Changes made in zoning and building codes, as directly informed by scientific findings, were instrumental to Anchorage’s resiliency in the face of a foreseeable natural disaster.

The 1989 San Francisco earthquake, whose epicenter was located in Loma Prieta, killed 57 people and caused over $5 billion in property damage, including the collapsed building shown above. Although San Francisco and many other cities in California are sure to experience similar quakes like this in the future, very little has been implemented in the way of USGS-recommended regulations on construction and residency restrictions. (JONATHAN NOUROK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

This is in stark contrast to many other locations which have failed to take those measures. The Hurricane Katrina disaster was as impactful as it was because there was no legislation to block the construction of residences at extreme risk for destruction in the event of a hurricane. California earthquakes, such as the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and the Northridge earthquake of 1994, were both lower-magnitude quakes than November’s Anchorage quake, but killed more than 50 apiece and resulted in billions in property damage.

Even more frighteningly, there’s an epidemic afflicting thousands of former coal miners: an advanced form of black lung disease. As NPR reports, regulators were absolutely poised to stop it: the risks were known, the information was easily available, and the science was overwhelming. But because we didn’t listen to it, thousands are suffering. Those afflicted are doomed to die a drawn-out, painful, debilitating death.

In 1981, coal miners protested after thousands gathered at United Mineworkers headquarters to warn President Reagan that they would not tolerate his proposed cuts to miners with Black Lung disease. 35 years later, an investigation revealed that while just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease were reported by the federal monitoring program in charge of it, more than 2,000 coal miners are actually suffering from it. (GETTY)

These two examples stand in stark contrast to one another. In the case of Anchorage, the risks were known, well-documented, and valued by the government. Legislation was written into law that made it illegal for citizens, industries, and corporations to take the risky actions that would surely result in excessive property damage and loss of life when the inevitable occurred. While individuals like USGS’s Bill Leith were instrumental in crafting scientifically-sound policy recommendations, it took a slew of individuals all working together to turn those recommendations into law.

Yet in many more cases, those recommendations are ignored, shouted down, or countered with a disinformation campaign. When confusion and doubt can be successfully sown, science can be devalued in favor of other interests. In many cases, from public safety to agricultural practices to the management of our environment and Earth’s natural resources, this is arguably humanity’s norm.

Mousuni, an island of the Sundarban Delta Complex of the Bay of Bengal is sinking along with several other similar islands of the Sundarban Deltic region due to climate change and tidal flooding.(SUSHAVAN NANDY / BARCROFT IMAGES / BARCROFT MEDIA)

Aspiring to work in science means you aspire to increase the knowledge and understanding we have of the world and Universe around us. An increase in human knowledge must always be appreciated, even if the knowledge we gain runs counter to what we hoped to discover. Science means challenging your assumptions, taking nothing for granted, and constantly doubting and re-evaluating your conclusions in the face of the ever-growing suite of data available.

In a society that valued science, this would translate into policies that were well-informed by science. Whenever there’s a policy decision to be made, accepting the scientific facts of a situation ought to be a prerequisite for getting a seat at the table. One may not always value the scientific interest over the economic or human interests that will be impacted, but devaluing science doesn’t make it less true. We ignore it at our own peril, and quite often, to our own detriment.

A theoretical prediction of what the wave-like pattern of light would look like around a spherical, opaque object. The bright spot in the middle was the absurdity that led Poisson to discount the wave theory, as Newton had done more than 100 years prior. In modern physics, of course, there are many light phenomena that can only be accurately described by wave mechanics. (ROBERT VANDERBEI)

Science also requires care, as it’s very easy to devise a theory that looks compelling, powerful, and yet that turns out to be woefully incorrect. It’s part of the scientific method to exhaustively attempt to identify every possible source of error, bias, or confounding factor that may be present whenever we study any natural phenomenon.

Yet science itself is inherently a human endeavor, and is therefore easily biased by our own individual failings. Newton may have been an influential genius, but his distaste for the wave theory of light set our advances back in that arena by generations. Einstein may have been the most brilliant scientist of them all, but his failure to accept our quantum reality as it truly is still impacts many scientists today. As far as science brings us, the failings of every single influential scientist become apparent on any sort of close examination.

There are, no doubt, charlatans and frauds who would exploit the ignorance and gullibility of others for their own gain, such as convicted fraud Andrea Rossi, shown with his highly-suspect device: the e-Cat. Wanting to believe in an outcome or conclusion is no substitute for the robust conclusions brought about by the full suite of scientific evidence. (ROSSI, KULLANDER, ESSEN AND THE E-CAT)

And yet, this doesn’t detract from people’s need for role models: people you can look up to. Some people go a step further and seek heroes: people they admire, idolize, or even wish they could be.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with having a hero, but not all of us do.

Adopting a hero should come with a caveat that implores us not to deify them, as no one has lived a life free from flaws or errors. Otherwise, we risk emulating not only their great successes, but their great failures and shortcomings as well. This is true for any figure you could imagine, from Freud to Feynman to Hawking and beyond.

Physicist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking presents a program in Seattle in 2012. Note his (outdated) assertion that a singularity, and the Big Bang, precedes the epoch of cosmic inflation, which is the earliest epoch we have any certainty about. (AP PHOTO / TED S. WARREN)

It should be science itself, however, that we save our greatest admiration for. It’s more than a suite of facts, although it encompasses everything we know, observe, measure, or experience. It’s more than a process that self-corrects and re-evaluates itself in the face of new evidence, although it certainly encompasses that.

Travel the Universe with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. Subscribers will get the newsletter every Saturday. All aboard!

It is how we arrive at our best approximation for reality itself. Science takes us as close as we’ve ever been to understanding the entire Universe. We should all hope to not only be aware of what science is and how it works, but also to appreciate how science has bettered our lives, perhaps moreso than any other human development.

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, discussing a great many topics in the home of Paul Ehrenfest in 1925. The Bohr-Einstein debates were one of the most influential occurrences during the development of quantum mechanics. Today, Bohr is best known for his quantum contributions, but Einstein is better-known for his contributions to relativity and mass-energy equivalence. As far as heroes go, both men possessed tremendous flaws in both their professional and personal lives. (PAUL EHRENFEST)

Many of us who don’t have heroes to look up to often feel inadequate: like there’s something lacking in us because of it. But it’s far better to go on that quest of self-discovery and become the best version of yourself you can be, as opposed to a cheap imitation of someone else’s best version of themselves. Don’t strive to become the next Einstein, Tesla, Curie, or Witten; if you do, you’ll doom yourself to the same failings that they encounter(ed) in their lives.

Instead, in science and beyond, we must learn to rely on more than just ourselves. We must adopt the full suite of knowledge that we possess at any given time, and make the best decisions we can based on that information, even — and perhaps especially — when it offends our sensibilities. Progress is neither easy nor swift, and humanity inevitably draws more good than evil from new discoveries.

We must listen to the story nature tells us about itself, and scientific investigation is how we do it. May we be humble enough to let that be the real hero that we follow in this life.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.