Other Question #3780

Mary Ibale, a female from South Western University, Asia asks on February 16, 2007,

What is the significance of Science in our society?

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The answer

Barry Shell answered on February 16, 2007

Science and technology dominate today's society in many ways. Wherever you live, nearly everything you do, eat, wear, hear or see is brought to you through scientific discoveries. But how much do you know about these modern-day wonders that rule your life?

Science is not perfect. While it can answer plenty of questions, there are many areas where science cannot help at all. For example, when it comes to feelings and aspects of life like personal relationships, politics, morals, ethics, beliefs, and metaphysics, science cannot be counted on to solve our problems. In fact, science may create as many problems as it solves. While science has contributed much that helps the world, it also produces things that can cause harm. Nuclear bombs, pollution and eugenics are just a few examples. Even so, I cannot help being fascinated by science and the people who do it. The greatest enjoyment in my work has come from those brief moments while researching or interviewing a scientist when I find myself saying, “That’s amazing!” or “So that’s how it works!”

People sometimes ask me, “Why does it matter? Why should I care about these scientists and what they’ve done? What practical value is there to science?” Real-world applications are important, but almost all the scientists in this book did not plan their experiments with a view to making something useful. Asking one of these scientists, “What’s it good for?” would be like asking a great artist the classic question about their masterpiece: “Will it match the sofa?” In a purely practical sense, great science, like great art, isn’t good for anything, unless you consider exploring the limits of human genius and creative expression a good thing, or if you value pushing forth the boundaries of human understanding of the natural world.

Practical applications of science often come long after the scientific discovery itself, which usually have no initial practical value. In 1917 when Einstein first came up with the concept of stimulated emission of light, the basis for lasers, neither he nor anyone else had any idea how it could be used. (At that time, electric light bulbs were still just catching on.) It wasn’t until 1960 that Theodore Maiman made a working laser. Even then people had few ideas about its use. Yet today every household contains many lasers in CD players, printers and pointers to name just a few applications.

Sometimes just knowing a scientific fact can be a good thing. For instance, it’s good to know there are such things as Black Holes out there in the universe, even though at this moment such knowledge is of no practical use. The concept of a Black Hole is enough to inspire thoughts and daydreams on any number of other subjects. Science charges one’s imagination with ideas. That’s what is so appealing about it.

At its best, the scientific method also teaches you to be critical. It encourages you to question the world around you and to examine everything you know over and over again. Scientists frequently say how important it is to question science itself. Perhaps this built-in quality of science—-the ongoing questioning and criticizing-—is what attracted me as a child and remains with me as an adult. By asking questions, never taking anything for granted, and always reviewing your assumptions, you can improve your knowledge and understanding of yourself, others and everything around you. To me that is the essence of science and the significance of science in society.

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