Other Contributions of Science to the QQuality of Life

How well did our prescientific ancestors fare in areas besides medicine and health? Again, we can get a perspective by considering how science has helped make life much more comfortable and productive. I will discuss engineering products, rather than science, in this section. It's important to realize that early inventions like the steam engine, camera, and telegraph were built before anyone truly understood the scientific principles by which they worked. All that has changed. Today engineers can create the vast majority of new technologies only because they understand the underlying science of the products beforehand. Indeed, we now know how many things work from the atomic level on up.


Let's consider just one example, namely our ever-improving ability to travel. It took the Mayflower 64 days to cross the Atlantic in 1620. In 1854, the fastest crossing of the Atlantic was made in 13 days, 20 hours. Science and the technology that resulted from it took off in the twentieth century; understanding of thermodynamics, friction, combustion, and metallurgy led to development of better engines and structural designs, which compressed travel time dramatically. The S.S. United States (the fastest transatlantic ocean liner) took just over 3 days and 10 hours to cross the Atlantic in 1952.

The same evolution took place, although more rapidly, in air travel. It took Charles Lindbergh 33 hours, 29 minutes to cross the Atlantic in 1927. In 1950, the Lockheed Constellation passenger plane took 12 hours to fly from New York to London. Today, normal passenger flights between New York and London take 6 hours. The supersonic Concorde made the trip in just under 3 hours. Furthermore, our pilots know where their aircraft is located to within a few yards and what their arrival time will be to within a few minutes, traffic and weather permitting. This accuracy is due entirely to the application of science to the field of navigation.

Such high-speed transportation and instantaneous communication have brought people closer together. Virtually anyone in the developed world can contact anyone else within a matter of minutes. Our technology has broken down many of the barriers that once served to help us define communities. We can debate whether or not this is a good thing. In any event, we are now in contact with more people and can witness and participate in a wider range of events than ever before. Unfortunately, rapid transportation also means rapid spread of diseases and other ills, such as terrorism and insect pests, around the world.

Periodically we all experience waves of nostalgia for a simpler, friendlier time as envisioned by painters Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade. Those idealized eras never existed, except possibly for the upper, moneyed classes. True idealizations are misconceptions we create by comparing what we perceive as a hectic, fragmented existence with a slower, more local way of life focused on survival. I have tried to make the case that our ancestors did not live idyllic lives. On the other hand, I personally don't think that our present social, scientific, and technological conditions are ideal. Rather, I believe that we are in a period of unprecedented transition. Transitions are extremely disconcerting, and in today's world we rarely have time to stop and take our bearings before some new technological, medical, social, economic, or political change drives society in another direction.

I believe that, barring a global catastrophe, we will continue on the high-tech road we presently travel. This means that we will continue to understand better how nature works and to find applications for this knowledge. Further, I believe that we need to understand the effects of the changes that are occurring to be better able to decide as a society where to go and what to do. For example, the Internet is presently a rapidly changing, nearly universal presence in our lives. Some aspects of the Web are very good: it provides much accurate information and many constructive, differing viewpoints, more than were ever available to individuals using conventional media. You can often do more research in a day by "surfing the Web" than you used to be able to do in a week at the library. However, some aspects of the Web are very bad: it also provides more disinformation and destructive viewpoints than ever before.

We can help guide the evolution of the Web by deciding what we do and do not want from it and working to ensure that we maximize its benefits and minimize its disadvantages. This might include imposing stiff penalties on people who create computer viruses or distribute child pornography. It might mean using software filters so that certain sites are not available on individual computers or through major servers to protect children. The point is, we are in a technological and scientific transition and we need to understand it to make it work best for everyone.

Although science is still alien to most people and contrary to our common sense, it enables a vast array of improvements in our lives as well as a universal (as compared to an individual) way to comprehend the universe. Science is an impersonal, objective, public discipline compared to art and other creative activities, which express personal, subjective, private creativity. However, science is accomplished by personal effort, often for subjective reasons, and often in private. The difference between science and art is that science forces consensus—scientific theories are either accurate or inaccurate, whereas artistic creations do not require consensus and, indeed, rarely create it. The difficulty in adopting a scientific mentality and working within its often restrictive guidelines is one of the reasons most humans have not made science a big part of their existence until recently.

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