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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A History of Science

Air Date: Week of

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Jim Secord, professor of History of Science at Cambridge University, joins host Steve Curwood to discuss the past century in science, and what this means for future scientific advances in energy production.


SECORD: I mean, I think it’s easy for us to assume that there’s going to be a kind of sudden breakthrough that’s just going to transform the way we use energy. And it may, unfortunately, be that the case isn’t going to be quite that simple.

CURWOOD: That’s Jim Secord, professor of the History of Science at Cambridge University in England. The Journal of Science recently published a paper by a scientific task force that considered research possibilities, including fusion, aimed at reducing dependence on oil, curbing climate change, and meeting growing energy demands. To reach those goals at the same time, the scientists conclude, will take “revolutionary changes in the technology of energy production.”

We asked Professor Secord what history teaches us about breakthrough efforts in science. He reminds us that problems in science are unlikely to be solved overnight.

SECORD: Thinking back, the time scale in which something like fusion might develop is very long. And when you get that length of time scale, it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen. So, a lot of the suggestions the authors put forward in the article involve throwing large amounts of money at what are, effectively, big technological solutions. I think, in many ways, we may need to think the problem from the ground up and look at it in a different kind of way.

CURWOOD: Well, yes. I’m wondering if today we, in fact, don’t do science backwards. Looking at a technological problem trying to find a scientific answer, the ancients explored the natural world just to be curious about it. Our friend Archimedes was exploring how the world worked and not looking for the best way to make a bathtub.

SECORD: Yes. I think what often happens then it means that we don’t really deal with these kind of problems in the right sort of time scale. We look at the immediate problem we’ve got, which is, of course, a very real problem. And then we think of where we are in terms of the scientific and technological approaches we have now, and we expect somehow to bridge that gap between the two. And it doesn’t always work that way. I think quite often changes in these things come from quite a different sort of a direction. There’s sort of one example I was thinking about which might illustrate what I mean. I mean, for a lot of people that work in an office everyday, one of the most useful things that’s changed their life and the way they operate is something like the Post-It Note, which is very low tech, very easy to use. I think quite often there’s much simpler and basic sort of solutions that are going to come to some of these energy problems, and they may come through a way that comes through science, but really much more through basic science, through thinking back, and things that we already know through solutions that we may already have available to us now, but just haven’t been implemented in the right sort of way.

CURWOOD: Professor Secord, how much of our present approach comes from the World War II experience? I’m thinking in particularly of the crisis of World War II, this huge crisis that led to the Manhattan Project, that lead to taking Albert Einstein’s theories and turning them into the atom bomb in this race for survival?

SECORD: In a way, if you look at the last half century of scientific development, the Manhattan Project has always been our kind of utopian blueprint for the way that science might be. That we could get a big project, get lots of people together, and solve the problem. And a lot of the attempts to do that kind of work haven’t been all that successful. The war on cancer, which obviously has had some successes, but hasn’t had the kind of success that might be expected, and, again the fusion project has had successes, but not the kind of instant fix that I think people expected might come through that. And, in fact, if you look, it’s often-- the genome project is another example where they put lots of money into something, but it was very distributed among large numbers of small groups of people. It was, in some sense, small science being done with big funds. And we may need more of that kind of work in order to make this work.

CURWOOD: How do you see science changing now compared to what’s happened in the past couple of hundred years?

SECORD: I think the big transformation of science, certainly in the last 10 years, has been a much closer relationship between commerce and science than we’ve had before this. And I think that domination of the sciences by commerce is, I think, a very important development. It can provide wonderful resources for science. But we need also, I think, to make sure that we don’t allow the power of science, in some sense, to become solely part of something that’s looking towards the development of, say, large multinational corporations. We need to make sure that those are actually worked in within other kinds of concerns we have. The kind of concerns we have as citizens about how we live and our cities and so forth.

CURWOOD: I’m wondering if I’m hearing you say that perhaps our energy problem may not be as much one of supply but one of thinking.

SECORD: I think there’s an awful lot of truth in that. I mean, I think what we need to do is to first of all think about the sciences, not just as one thing that is going to give us some simple solution to the problem. Science is a complicated kind of issue. It involves humans, it involves machines, it involves ways of thinking about how nature and humans interact. We need to first of all get that kind of thought relationship right and then we need to tackle problems of how do we use the energy in the same breath as we’re tackling problems of how do we get more energy.

We need to keep those options open I think. And not just in terms of technological fixes but in terms of establishing the right kind of relationships between humans and energy from a point of view that makes sense scientifically.

CURWOOD: Jim Secord is a professor of the History of Science at Cambridge University. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

SECORD: Thanks very much.

CURWOOD: To hear an extended version of our interview with Professor Secord and learn more about the latest in fusion research, go to our website: loe.org. That’s loe.org.

You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.



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