Friday, January 13, 2012

Can Science Be Trusted?

I am just about as tech connected as most people, and maybe more than others. I have always embraced new technologies and have usually been one of the first of my friends and family to experiment with new gadgets. In the past I have sort of trusted technology to provide me with the advantages of an organized life and have leaned heavily on technological advances to help make my life more consistent and easier to navigate.

During a recent trip to purchase repair materials for a job, I realized that I was beginning to become way too reliant on technology for the simple act of mental calculations. I was attempting to determine how many 10 foot 2X4s I would need to buy in order to cover the specific distance I needed to make the repairs. Instead of mentally dividing the total number of feet I needed by 10, I pulled out my phone and started to open the calculator. I realized that I had succumbed to a form of automatic behavior brought on by habit. Then I thought: “What if I wanted 8 foot 2X4s instead, how many would that be?" I found that I could also quickly calculate the required number in my head. This situation lead me to consider how dependent I have become on technology to lead the way in life instead on relying the things I have learned and experienced for myself.

It also made me think about science through the ages and how much has changed since the apple fell on Newton’s head. We have gone from a flat earth that everything revolves around it, to looking for a Higgs Bosom in sub-atomic particles.  Standard physics couldn’t explain sub-atomic reactions so we came up with quantum physics.  Now we realize that quantum physics also breaks down when you begin to consider the mathematics of a black hole and the singularity that is said to be residing at its center.  I am not sure there will ever be an end to new discoveries that append to or even negate the current “laws” of physics.

So what’s my point? I guess all I am saying is that when we rely on material technologies that can break down, we leave ourselves open to loosing our ability to do simple mental tasks that are necessary to survive in this world. There is a story I read in early college that really sums up the point I am making pretty well. It is called “The Feeling of power” by Isaac Asimov. It tells of a future time when the two last countries on earth are engaged in a war that neither can win because the conflict is controlled by computers. By virtue of their ability to calculate quickly, the two computers are unable to outsmart each other. The unforeseen consequence of this is that the war has continued for years without any resolution while taking more and more of the two countries resources. While most citizens believe rumors that the government is testing children for intelligence and taking the dumb ones from their parents, the truth is they are really looking for the ones that can think and do calculations in their head. The government plans to use young people who can think and do math in their head to spearhead the attacks on the other country because they believe it is the only way they can defeat the enemy’s smart computer that is in a stalemate with their own. Makes you think huh? … and it was written back in 1958!

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