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23/08/2014

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Open space: Stop being frightened

Science is who we are, insists Mark Stevenson

The inventor Charles Kettering once remarked, ‘My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.’ But if you listen to our politics and press you’re also likely to be terrified of tomorrow. Economic meltdown, resource crises, climate change, a disenfranchised zombie youth, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical… It’s all pretty grim.

Fear gets our attention quickly, but it pays to remember that just as it is our tendency to worry about the future, it is also our inclination to invent it.

Science is who we are, insists Mark Stevenson

The inventor Charles Kettering once remarked, ‘My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.’ But if you listen to our politics and press you’re also likely to be terrified of tomorrow. Economic meltdown, resource crises, climate change, a disenfranchised zombie youth, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical… It’s all pretty grim.

Fear gets our attention quickly, but it pays to remember that just as it is our tendency to worry about the future, it is also our inclination to invent it.

Extracting CO2

I was recently at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers working with Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge. We were talking about one way to combat climate change: taking carbon directly out of the air. When Virgin launched the US$25million prize for ‘a scalable and sustainable system that can achieve the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere’, a lot of commentators scoffed.

Atmospheric CO2 is a bit like whisky – it doesn’t take much to have a profound effect - and with a concentration of 1 molecule in 2,500 it was (understandably) suggested that you’d have to be nuts to try and find the CO2 needle in the atmosphere haystack. The argument went that anything that might work would need so much energy it would add more CO2 to the atmosphere than it removed. But that didn’t stop a flood of 10,000 applications, which became 2,600 serious entries, which became 100 thoroughly reviewed projects and, now, 11 finalists.

I was lucky enough to sit in a sparsely populated room while some of those finalists presented, just two years on from a similar gathering where a lot of the discussion had been around various theories of CO2 air capture. This time the emphasis had shifted to hard facts. There was a lot of ‘graph porn’ on show – reporting on pilot projects capturing carbon out of the air as I write. And the data was very encouraging.

Feeding in outputs

This is just one example how, out of the glare of the cynical media and political spotlight, scientists and engineers invent possible new futures. As we mourn the passing of Neil Armstrong, it’s worth remembering that your mobile phone exceeds the processing power of the entire Apollo space mission and gives you access to more information than the President of the United States had just a generation ago.

Science and technology can do this because they feed their outputs back into the process. Think of all the things that couldn’t have been invented without paper, spectroscopy or the microprocessor for instance. The battle to mitigate climate change, whether it’s via carbon capture or improving renewables, will benefit from this tendency.

Less Murdoch and Milliband

This exponential upswing in power, of course, terrifies us all over again. We can see this in the current debates about biotechnology. But whether we like it or not, this is who we are.

Science and technology aren’t a threat to our humanity as some would have us believe; they’re without doubt a wholehearted expression of it. There aren’t doggy versions of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers or the British Science Association (although wouldn’t it be cool if there were?).

As we move out of industrialism and into this new age, our science and ingenuity can help us address the grand challenges of our times, from climate change to cancer – if we’re willing to think a little more like Michael Faraday and a little less like James Murdoch or Ed Milliband.

But that means we need more scientists and engineers. That’s the real resource shortage (in the West at least) we should be worrying about.

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Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson is a writer, businessman, comedian and founder of the League of Pragmatic Optimists - www.leagueofpragmaticoptimists.com
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