My background and research have been in the field of Astrophysics. Last month I attended a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in DC. While attending some of the lectures I must admit that I was overwhelmed and excited by the progress that we human beings have made in technology and using that technology for discovery. As a retired NASA astrophysicist, one would think that almost nothing would overwhelm me, but what I saw did.
Many of you are aware that the Nobel Prize in physics this year went to the measurement of gravity waves. I attended a lecture by one of the leaders of that team. When Einstein predicted gravity waves about 100 years ago, he also predicted that they would NEVER be measurable. The measurement techniques used required almost inconceivable technological breakthroughs. However, the measurement alone was not sufficient to identify the cause of the gravity waves (two colliding black holes) and where they originated. This last part required computational capabilities inconceivable a few decades ago. Sitting in the audience, listening to what had been done, and seeing the data on the screen was quite an experience for me.
Another area that was impressive was our understanding of the Universe. As a graduate student 40 years ago, this area of research was finished, nothing new to discover. However, with the advent of new telescopes and higher computing power, this area of research has again become exciting. We can now look back into almost the beginning of time. We can see that the structure of the Universe is very exciting with much to be learned. As an interesting aside on this point, you might be interested to know that you, as a human being, are made of star poop. Yes, to get the carbon and oxygen needed to make people, you need for the original stars to process hydrogen into these other elements and then expel them into space. The new atoms that are expelled form new stars and planets and living things.
While being excited by the new discoveries in the physical sciences, I think about our sociological development as a species. Here I see us as not having advanced much beyond the club and spears era (Yes, we have nuclear weapons instead of clubs, but the sociological use is the same.). There is so much about our social interactions that just don’t make sense. Why can’t we fix the problems? Of course, that was a rhetorical question.
In reading some of the less technical journals, I see that we are gaining a better understanding of how the human brain works. One of the more interesting articles dealt with the issue of empathy. While we thought that it was a learned behavior, we are now learning that to some extent, maybe even a large extent, it is neurologic – read biological. Does that mean that someday we can make everyone’s brain such that they have empathy? Is that desirable? The ethics issues become enormous. But, if everyone had empathy for everyone else, murder might never happen. Maybe there is a downside to everyone having empathy?
While our advancement in the physical sciences is exciting and often lead to a better living condition for all, what are the ramifications of “advances” in the social sciences? I see that we are making progress, but is it enough and occurring fast enough?