Every child is born fascinated with the world around her or him. Everything is new, seen for the very first time. My parents exacerbated my curiosity by giving me a chemistry set when I was only six years old. A microscope a year later, tripled my curiosity about how things worked. Often, when I asked my father a question, he would respond, “Think, dammit! Figure it out for yourself.” Although I thought he was being cruel at the time, I realize now that he was instrumental in setting me on a course towards omniscience. I’m not there yet, of course, but I’m still trying. Have you noticed that “science” is the basis for a word that means “knowing everything”?
I soon learned that I was different from other students. Not only were they unfamiliar with the scientific process, they were also apathetic to its rigorous requirements. Apathetic, that is, until Carl Sagan became a household name. When PBS released COSMOS, his quintessential science documentary, in 1980, he triggered an exponential increase in the public’s desire to learn. In his “voyage of the imagination”, he virtually brought the entire universe into your living room. His casual, friendly approach to explaining things made people realize that you don’t have to be a genius to enjoy and practice science. If you haven’t seen this thirteen-hour series, I strongly encourage you to purchase it today. Right now. Your life will be richer when you have experienced it – at least once.
(Please note that astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan (Carl’s wife) have created an updated version which is also called COSMOS. It is good, but not nearly as awe inspiring as the original.)
Science is a methodical process that was invented by the Greeks nearly 2,400 years ago. They began to notice that everything had a cause and effect. When you see the effect, you begin to wonder what caused it. Getting the correct answer is the purpose of science. Centuries after the Greeks began to understand the world in greater detail, human society slipped back into accepting mythology as the source of truth. This period of preferred ignorance is referred to as the Dark Ages. The Renaissance, or “rebirth”, is actually a period of time when humanity rediscovered the wisdom of the Greeks. Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Nicholaus Copernicus were some of the principle advocates of this era, deliberately pushing the envelope of human knowledge and understanding.
My personal concern is that society is rapidly slipping back into another Dark Age, ironically caused by the rapid expansion of technology. Every phone has a mapping program that uses GPS to plan your route. It may be convenient, but people no longer feel the need to understand north, south, east, and west. Drop your phone into a puddle of water… and you will be completely lost.
Digital cash registers allow fast food establishments to hire people who are unable to perform simple arithmetic, to the point of being unable to distribute change, even when the correct answer is calculated for them. There are numerous YouTube channels that interview people who can’t tell you who the first president was, or even how many stars are on the American flag.
Hippocrates said, “That which is used – develops. That which is not used wastes away.” American society is not using their capacity for critical thinking, and it is quickly disappearing. Carl Sagan thought so, too. Here is a quote from his book, Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Balantine Books (1996) p. 25
“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”