Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Magic of Science

A friend of mine found this old Disney clip on what life could be like on other planets.  He described it as a time when Disney "oozed magic".

It made me wonder where that magic came from?  And where did it go?  If you go back to the first half of the 20th century, there seemed to be a much more naive, yet emotionally-charged connection to science.  We certainly had reason to become more jaded about its possibilities.  But it feels like at the same time we gave something up in our sobriety.

The 60's counter-culture certainly embraced an anti-scientism, ostensibly associating it with the repressed, corporate mindset they sought to escape.  This primitivism is still found today in the continued proliferation of "natural" health food stores selling such quackery as homeopathic remedies, cure-all vitamin supplements and a generally didactic embrace of the good life as defined as being against mass-production, technology and engineering.  Chemistry and genetic modification are necessarily bad, even though most shoppers probably could not tell you the difference between DNA and RNA.  The point is that it is abstract and scary, and most of all done by large organizations in far away places.

This is the same logic of those who oppose vaccines.  Never mind the more conspiratorial theories about "government" plots, nor the ample evidence that vaccines are not only overwhelmingly safe but vital as part of a comprehensive strategy to eliminate common diseases.  One goes out on a limb in these areas but a case can be made that there seems to be a subconscious fear (isn't there always) of not only needles but authority in general, and elites in particular.  "Who do they think they are, with all their fancy "learnin'!"  Who among those opposed to vaccination really understands what memory T cells are, and the basics of immunology.  This cartoon from the Anti-Vaccine Society was drawn in 1802.  It depicts the likely results from Edward Jenner's small-pox vaccine, which he derived from the pus of cows' known to be resistant to the disease.  As you can clearly see, the shots produce bovine features.
 None of this is to say that science and technology cannot be used for terrible ill.  There is no need here to go into the obviously horrendous things that have happened either through malice or misunderstanding, which were amplified by scientific means.  We must surely always be vigilant.

But who are we if not scientific animals?  Descartes wrote, "I think, therefore I am."  In sorting out where to begin a philosophical understanding of the mind, that was as good a foundation as any.  We look out at the world - and then notice that we do.  Waves of light, sound and feeling reach into our heads, we process them, then send out our own.  In our brief history of scientific thought, we have already learned so much, and yet learned how much we do not know.  Science is the only thing capable of letting us peer into distant galaxies, or into the inner-workings of our cellular DNA.  It shows us not only what the universe is made of, but what it is capable of being made into.  In a word, it is magic.

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