In New Horizons case, with barely 4% of the mission data transmitted back to earth, it has already raised enough scientific questions to keep some of the world's finest minds engaged for decades. It promises to transform our understanding of a small and insignificant solar system in vast galaxy known as the Milky Way. Just one small, unexceptional, galaxy in an unimaginably infinite universe thought to contain at least a 100 billion and perhaps as many as 200 billion galaxies.
It's easy to forget now much science and technology has transformed our lives in such a short space of time, opening up new possibilities, wiping away old industries, creating new ones and posing some of the toughest ethical questions we've ever had to deal with as species. It would be impossible to list all the scientific advances and discoveries that have been made since I was born in 1961. The year Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space and Kennedy committed the U.S. to "landing a man on the Moon." Whole technologies (think VHS) have come and gone, we've been alerted to and dealt with the threats posed by lead in petrol and ozone depleting chemicals. Now we face the greatest challenge of our times anthropomorphic climate change. The decisions we made today will reverberate through the decades and centuries to come and have a profound impact on future generations, no matter how much we try and deny what science is telling us.
There is a school of thought of course that most science is a frivolous waste of money, that we should only invest in what we know will directly benefit us. It's an argument that suggests we should know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Another school of thought suggests we should only focus on addressing the most pressing problems we face here and now, like providing everyone with clean drinking water and sanitation. That its morally wrong to send probes to Pluto and spend billions on fantasies about building a base on Mars or exploring the stars.
It's worth noting here the dangers posed by atmospheric lead pollution were first highlighted by American scientist Clair Cameron Patterson's work on using lead isotopes to calculate the age of the Earth, hardly a priority for either school of thought, 4.55 Billion years. Thankfully he wasn't burnt at the stake by creationists who's literal interpretation of bible puts the age of the Earth at around 5,000 years. He did however make some powerful industrial enemies for his subsequent campaign against lead pollution.
Apollo 8 gave us one of the most iconic pictures of our planet, Earthrise. It revealed our planet for what is, a small, fragile, blue-green, life sustaining ball, hanging in the vast emptiness of space. It was a profound scientific, social and cultural point in history that changed forever how we see ourselves, the planet we inhabit, and our place in the cosmos. It's no coincidence that a raft of social, environmental and green movements emerged in the wake of those pictures of Earth being published in the 1970's. To borrow a phrase from the politicians it made us realise as a species that we really are all in this together, no matter how much some of us try to deny it.
The point is we can't confine science to those avenues of research that are only going to provide economic or practical benefits to us in the here and now, to do so would impoverish us all. We are by nature inquisitive creatures, our brains hard wired to seek out unseen patterns in the world around us, to explore the unknown, wherever it may take us. And as the above examples show it can sometimes lead us down the most unexpected of avenues.
The real beauty and terror of science is not the answers it gives us, but the complex moral and ethical questions it raises. Thanks to it we know more about the world we live in than ever before and the potential dangers we face as a consequence of our actions or inaction. The question is do we burn the scientists as the stake like we did 415 years ago or face up to the challenges and opportunities science gives us?
There's also a new short-story on my blog this week which isn't particularly related to any of the above, 'Transformation'