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Science and Society

Gates: Being a scientist, and in particular being a theoretical physicist, we are what I like to call hopeless optimists.  Now what do I mean by this?  Well, when we look at the world, obviously there are many, many conditions of humanity that cause us to despair, hunger, poverty, war, bigotry, and so it would be easy to lose hope if you just look at these parts of human behavior.  On the other hand, if you’re a theoretical physicist, you’re doing something that you will likely- if you’re doing it at its most fundamental level, you’re doing something that most likely in your lifetime you will never see a single fruit come from it.  And so you’re creating ideas in what I like to call the storehouse of human knowledge.  In order for these ideas to become of value, however, will take time.  It’s a little bit like putting a note in a bottle and simply casting the bottle into the sea with the hope that someone will find this note and it will be of value to them.  That’s what doing theoretical physics is like on one hand.  So I understand that that’s the life I’ve chosen for myself.  It’s a life where we get to think about the universe and it’s a life where at the end of the day it’s a personal engagement with the universe at a profound level.  On the other hand, it’s not something that I think of as separating me from the rest of humanity because in fact the whole point of the exercise is to do something valuable for humanity.  There is a wonderful saying by Horst Mann who said, “You should be ashamed to die before you have won some great victory for humankind.”  And that’s what being a physicist, a theoretical physicist is like.  You’re trying to make that wonderful victory for humankind.  And so it’s a profoundly connecting sense of what it is that we do.  So when I look at the world, and as you brought up, the American Idol, I understand that for most people these are things that are important to them personally that bring great value to their existence.  On the other hand, for someone like me, for example, I’ve never actually seen American Idol.  I know it exists ‘cause I hear about it all the time, but I don’t- for me personally, I don’t see a point.  So doing theoretical physics is to me profoundly a human activity because it’s an expression of optimism in our species.  And that’s why I say we are hopeless optimists.

Gates explains science's role in contemporary society.

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