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Science’s Global Conundrums

From the Winter 2011/2012 Faith issue

By Christophe Galfard

PARIS—Extremophiles thrive in the bubbling acidic springs of Yellowstone, in ocean beds miles below the sea surface, and in the radioactive pools of nuclear power plants. They flourish in places so hostile that any other living being would be crushed, dissolved, or melted within seconds. These tiny organisms were discovered during the second half of the 20th century, and today they happen to be Patrick Forterre’s passion. Professor Forterre works at the Pasteur Institute, named after Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French scientist who fathered what we now call microbiology and who discovered, among other breakthroughs, the vaccines for anthrax and rabies and the pasteurization process.

For any normal human being, walking through the Pasteur Institute’s corridors is a frightening experience. Women and men in lab coats chat mindlessly while holding white polystyrene boxes at arm’s length. It is easy to be overcome with a paralyzing fear that these boxes contain killer microbes ready to bore into your body, giving you a foretaste of hell while they turn your flesh into a microscopic battlefield. In the same way sharks became a public marine nightmare after Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a host of Hollywood movies suggests the only good microbe is an eradicated one.

That is, of course, wrong. Without the billions of microbes that live inside our bodies, it would be impossible to turn the food we eat into energy. Worse, without the billions of microbes that carpet the oceans’ surface, we wouldn’t be here at all. There wouldn’t be any oxygen for us.

Forterre is a tall, slim, white-bearded, white-haired man with a ready smile who has spent his career studying extremophiles. Some 30 years ago, he explains, scientists believed that all life on Earth could be classified into two categories. Depending on their type of cells, they are either eukaryotes, which include plants, fungi, and all animals, even humans or prokaryotes, single-celled organisms that lack a nucleus. Thanks to the discovery of extremophiles, we have found a third way of being alive on Earth. Members of this new category are called archae, some of whom have special cell walls that require extreme environments.

A WRONG QUESTION

After being reassured that nearby microbes weren’t going to jump out of their containers to infect us, I asked Forette how his studies of extremophiles could benefit humanity. He could have answered that the DNA analysis used on television and in real life by police investigators wouldn’t exist without extremophiles. He could have said that countless diseases may one day be cured, or even that they may give us clues about the emergence of life on our planet. But he offers none of these explanations. Instead, he pauses for a moment and, with a sigh, says that he suspects no one has ever asked me such a question. He’s right.

Between 2000 and 2006, I was Professor Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D.
student at Cambridge University, in England. When asked what I did for a living, my reply—“I work on black holes and the origin of our Universe”—was usually followed by a long silence. But no one ever asked me why I studied odd things like that. Black holes and the origin of our universe naturally seem to be fair subjects to study. Why, then, not extremophiles? Why did my first question on these tiny pieces of living revolve around their practical applications and not the theory of their very existence? Is it because they are too small to be visible and hence don’t appeal to the feeling of awe that grips people looking at the night sky? Is it because once it is known they belong to the realm of microbes they just become subjects of fear?

Perhaps. But it’s more likely the real reason is simply that their story hasn’t yet been told in the right way—and I suspect this is true for most scientific research. At a political level, this is one of the most pressing issues faced by scientists and policymakers today. Science is about unraveling the mysteries of the universe, understanding the laws of nature, figuring out who we are, where we come from, and where we are heading. All sciences have the potential to trigger awe and amazement. “But people do not care, and it is far too difficult for them to understand anyway,” is an oft-repeated mantra about science. But that is not true. Quite the opposite, in fact.

TEACHING THE BIG BANG

Last summer, I was invited to give a talk about the Big Bang in Hyères, a city on the French Riviera. The venue was a large sports hall converted into a conference room. To attract the largest possible audience,organizers arranged for night sky observations after the “show” in a nearby parking lot. Unfortunately, about two hours before nightfall, clouds covered the sky and ruined all hopes of space gazing. Yet at the start, more than 600 were seated inside the hall. The talk was supposed to last an hour, but two and a half hours later, no one had left, and dozens of hands were still raised to ask questions about space, time, life, the Earth, our future. “That was unexpected,” muttered one delighted organizer afterwards, hardly believing his luck and trying to find some rational explanation for the turnout. But this was no accident.

Last year, I gave more than a hundred public talks throughout Europe, and whether the audience consisted of children in a small village school in the green hills of northeast Greece or adults in a trendy modern art museum in Paris made no difference at all. These popular science talks are always met with the same extraordinary enthusiasm for explanations of the climate, antimatter, black holes, the Big Bang, and even the reason the sky is blue. So far, tens of thousands of individuals have come to learn about the world as it is seen by scientists. No one has ever asked why scientists find such things interesting, or what potential practical applications their study could bring. Why not? Because these aren’t lectures, these are stories. For a few hours, all these disparate people become as passionate about our world as most scientists. Adults in Paris or Athens or Stockholm ask the same questions children asked the week before in a tiny village. For a few hours, every mind focuses on a single goal—trying to figure out what is known or yet to be known about life and the universe. For a few hours, adults and children forget their worries, travel through space and time, discovering places of cosmic beauty. When they leave the “show,” they have smiles on their faces.

Witnessing their excitement, it is hard not to feel there is something wrong with the way science is usually portrayed. Worse, knowing how passionate the general public truly is about such matters leads to a very serious conclusion.  Scientists should be given more incentives to share what they know with the general public. Would such a knowledge exchange to happen, it would dissipate the far too widespread suspicion toward science spread by some ill-intended people. Attempts at discrediting Climate Change or Evolution are but two depressing examples.

SIXTIETH BIRTHDAY

In the life of renowned scientists, 60th birthdays are special moments. Workshops or conferences are usually held to honor their contributions. Professor Hawking’s big day came in January 2002, and there was one particularly memorable public talk by Edward Witten—among the world’s greatest living mathematicians. A professor at the School of Natural Sciences of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, he received the Fields Medal in 1990 (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for his work on knot theory. Later in his career, he switched from pure math to mathematical physics and transformed himself into one of the leading thinkers in the theoretical physics community, performing pioneering work on quantum gravity.

As he rose to speak, most in the audience expected him to lay out a story about some complex mathematical shoelace and explain how Hawking managed to tie it to physics, but Witten surprised everyone. He spoke about one aspect of Hawking’s career that no one had mentioned throughout the week-long celebration, but which he believed was of the utmost importance—his work popularizing science. Millions around the world became interested in theoretical physics thanks to Hawking’s writings, television appearances, and public talks. Science constantly needs more such public figures, Witten explained, or we’ll end up having no funding for our experiments.

Between 2000 and 2005, I spent one month each year with Hawking in the United States, helping him prepare public talks designed to raise funds for universities. Mesmerized audiences, sometimes approaching 10,000 individuals, listened raptly as he discussed science, the universe, and his life in physics. The result was endowments worth millions of dollars to universities, a feat in its own right. But something more important was achieved. No one who has ever attended one of his public talks will ever again question the relevance of public money being spent on scientific research. This triggered my decision to return to France and try and do in my home country what Hawking did throughout the world.

In France, like much of the West, scientific culture is a paradox. On the one hand, there is a national pride in the talent of its researchers and its extraordinary network of scientific institutions. On the other, there is a widening gap between the experts and the general public.

ROOTS OF THE GAP

The September issue of the Revue Internationale d’Education de Sèvres, a French journal chronicling education trends around the world, examined “Pleasure and Boredom at School.” Its findings are appalling, but not unexpected. Some 73.3 percent of the French children they surveyed stated that they either “rather disliked or totally disliked going to school.”

The French education system is based on testing children’s abilities to remember and understand specific facts. There is no room for fun, not the least effort devoted to learning for the pleasure of learning. Throughout their school years, French pupils prepare for exams and fear the mauvaise note, the bad grade, which can “objectively” prove they are below the society’s intellectual standards and expectations. Instead of being a bridge towards elation (as it ought to be), science becomes a selection tool. This attempt at singling out the most gifted pupils may be efficient and rewarding for them, but backfires on society—leaving many adults with a sour memory of their school years.

At a dinner, a first reaction to my confessing to being a scientist all too often is, “At school, I never understood a thing,” or “At school, I was terrible at math.” The other guests will then nod, fully understanding that perspective, recalling their own trauma. For them, scientific teaching has turned the eager-to-learn children they once were into adults with hang-ups about their ability to comprehend complex thought. Such a state of affairs not only leads to crooks being able to spread false statements for their own personal (and sometimes political) benefit, it also casts a gloomy shadow on our societies. It’s all too easy to fear what is not understood. Wouldn’t it be preferable to live in a society where fears about potential science-driven catastrophes are replaced by the excitement of potential new discoveries?

FINDING NEVERLAND

UNESCO’s Paris headquarters recently asked me to explore new ways to teach science to children. The audience was to consist of (adult) diplomats. The task, however, seemed too big. I wanted to tell them that understanding science should make us feel happy. But how could I communicate this? In the feature film Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp playing the role of Sir James Barry, creator of Peter Pan, he stages a premiere of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Barry arranges for orphans to receive free tickets and be seated randomly between adults. Throughout the performance, children’s laughter fills the hall and spreads to the whole theater. The play becomes a success overnight.

UNESCO organizers agreed to have school children present during my talk, which began with my telling the diplomats that instead of an extended monologue, they would be hearing a story that linked the birth of stars to the  Earth’s climate. Pictures of exploding stars accompanied explanations of how the dust they contained could turn, millions of years later, into new stars and planets. The Earth was born that way, out of stardust, at about the same time as our Sun. Since then, our star’s shining energy is stored in our sky, and this energy today turns water from our planet’s surface into clouds, creating our global climate. Just like in the film, it worked. Mixed in among the diplomats and awed by the photographs, the children enthusiastically asked questions. The diplomats were stunned. After the talk, several remarked that they had felt like children again themselves. With their smiles, I had made my point.

A growing number of French schools have come to understand that extracurricular scientific activities can help pupils link what they learn at school to the real world, making their science teaching more engaging and longer lasting. Indeed, as Witten suggests, scientists need to reach out to children as much as to adults. It is fair to say that the task is huge, but failure in trying to achieve that goal should not be an option.

The European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) facilities near Geneva lie 300 feet below the French-Swiss border. It is one of the world’s largest and most advanced scientific research centers. More than 600 institutions collaborate there on some of the most astounding research about our universe. But what last drew worldwide media attention was not any of the new scientific breakthroughs—it was a lawsuit. A botanist and a Spanish science writer demanded in a Hawaiian court that cern be shut down, claiming it could create a black hole that would swallow the Earth.

Fear kicked in, and the day before the experiment started, one of the most popular French radio networks called me for an interview. “So, will the world end tomorrow?” they asked. “No,” I replied. “But it is dangerous, isn’t it? The risk is huge!” my questioner shot back. “No,” I repeated and continued by explaining the extraordinary experiment.

By smashing particles with incredible speed and energy into each other, scientists at cern were about to open a new window on our universe. They were about to reach temperatures and pressures very near what occurred in the moments after the Big Bang. All this was going to happen on a minute scale, and researchers seemed to be on the verge of uncovering new clues about where everything comes from.

The interview never aired. “Not scary enough,” they replied blankly.
Feeding on the public’s natural fears, the mass media often turns poorly understood or ill-appreciated fundamental scientific research into a danger, thus hoping to reach an even wider audience. Fighting such a bogey at a time when human-driven climate change or nuclear power plant disasters make headlines is difficult, but absolutely necessary.

STORY TIME

Some time ago, Hawking was discussing the Cold War. “At the time,” Hawking told me, “no one from the East was supposed to speak to anyone from the West, and vice-versa. But we did. We never stopped working together.” While the whole world was living in the shadow of Armageddon, theoretical physicists continued to argue across the iron curtain about the universe’s origins or what could eventually escape a black hole’s gravitational pull. Science, it turns out, was in a unique position to unite mankind. The perspective it offers on our daily lives helps individuals forget boundaries, disciplines, and time. It connects us to our past and to our future.

Through its findings, science yields answers none of us ever expect and may even help ensure the future survival of our species. But for this to happen, science needs to be alive and thrive in all the bizarre avenues opened to the human imagination—just as extremophiles thrive in the most inhospitable corners. The dreams and prospects of science are unfathomable, and they should not be confined to the reach of a handful of experts, but be open to all. For this to happen, policymakers would be well advised to help scientists team up with, or become, story tellers who share their findings in lay terms with everyone.

Of all human inventions, only science has enabled us to discover parts of our reality beyond the reach of our senses. If we work to make sure everyone can share present and future discoveries, today’s unknowns are sure to fill our children’s lives with wonder.

In the end, it all comes back to Professor Forterre’s extremophiles. My question to him dealt with practical applications of his work rather than the theory of their very existence. Not being an extremophile expert myself, I was seeking answers I could grasp rather than a story. I should have known better.

Some extremophiles can survive for weeks in outer space without any protection and still reproduce. Could we learn how they do that? Could it mean that life may have spread from one planet to another? Could it mean that the origin of life on Earth is different from what most people think? The answers are worth a beautiful story, a story that could eventually lead mankind to Mars, a story that could once again make everyone dream about what we humans can achieve when we work together.

*****

*****

Christophe Galfard holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cambridge University. He is co-author, with Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy, of George’s Secret Key to the Universe(Simon & Schuster, 2007). Galfard’s latest book is Le Prince des Nuages (The Prince of Clouds) (Pocket Jeunesse, 2009).

[Image: El Bibliomata]

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