Tuesday 12 November 2019

Our smart young scientists can discover that the future is bright

David McWilliams

When I was a kid my favourite toy was a moon buggy, a little model the size of a matchbox. I loved it and spent hours pretending to drive around the moon, avoiding moon craters and inventing moon creatures in my head.

I was one of those 'locked in' little boys who could spend hours on my own inventing scenarios on my imaginary moon in my bedroom.

I dreamed of being an astronaut, flying to the moon and maybe even living up there. Why wouldn't I? After all, TV was full of programmes about living in space.

The 1970s was the age of the moon - Apollo 11, Bowie's 'Moonage Daydream', 'Star Wars' and Bond's 'Moonraker'. Our future would be out of this world; we would live somewhere up there in the darkness in our space suits, space stations and 'Star Trek' script.

When seen from the 1970s, the 21st century was to be the 'Space Century'.

But the age of moonwalking would be over very quickly. The first man on the moon was in 1969, and the last man set foot on the moon in 1972. When I was playing with my moon buggy in 1976, the age of the moon missions was already in the past.

This is often the case with science, we get carried away by the possibility of invention and believe that science and innovation is going to deliver a brave new world. Often, we are disappointed.

As the great Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel quipped: "We thought we would get to flying cars but all we got was 140 characters".

Doubtless, Twitter has changed the way some of us communicate, but a brave new world it isn't. Yet that doesn't prevent technology and science people from being inherently, refreshingly optimistic.

Today, in the RDS, we are going to see a great example of this optimism at the Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. Thousands of schoolchildren from all over Ireland will unveil their discoveries of how science will make the world a better place.

Some of the previous winners have gone on to start million and even billion euro businesses.

Not for them the deep cynicism of current affairs programmes. For them the future is bright and, with the help of technology, it is getting brighter. The optimism of science is infectious. It is difficult to spend time with techies and not come away with a sense that we are only a few discoveries away from nirvana. Contrast this with spending time in the company of economists, journalists or political junkies. A brush with these forlorn species and we think the world is about to end.

In the past week, lots of publications have had their year ahead sections about what to expect in 2015. In traditional economics, current affairs and political magazines the year ahead is a series of pitfalls into which the world could plummet.

It could be the next crisis in Greece; the further collapse of the rouble; a climate change-related disaster; a recession in China; a renewed slump in Ireland; political extremism in Europe; a hung parliament in Britain; or a bloodbath in the Middle East.

Contrast this pessimism with the year ahead section in 'Nature' - the weekly science magazine. 2015 will be fabulous! We will see a cure for Ebola; a climate change deal; trips to something called 'dwarf planets'; cholesterol-busting drugs; enhancement in genetic tracking which will allow us to understand the DNA of the earliest humans.

So who is right: the dismal economist or the upbeat scientist?

Both can't be right indefinitely, because all economies are driven by scientific inquiry and the application of scientific advances into technology that drive productivity. Indeed, the countries that invest in science are normally the ones that generate the economic buoyancy to repay the investment in science over and over again. This link between scientific inquiry and economic advances goes back thousands of years.

A few years after I was playing with moon buggies, I had a teacher who told us the legends of the ancient world. One was about Thales of Miletus, the great Greek philosopher who understood astronomy and geometry. One day, Thales was looking at the sky and fell into a hole. A young girl laughed at him, saying he should look at the ground rather than have his head in the sky. But Thales was looking at the constellation of the stars and predicted a brilliant olive harvest the following year. He bought up all the presses and the next year when the bumper harvest arrived, the locals had to rent presses from the wily Thales.

This was maybe one of the earliest examples of science being used in the application of economic profit.

Let's hope the young scientists are aware of the classics, because a world of dismal economists would be far less interesting than a world full of optimistic scientific enquirers.

Irish Independent

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