The approaching birthdays of two renaissance polymaths, Nicolaus Copernicus (Feb. 19, 1473) and Galileo Galilei (Feb. 15, 1564), provide a timely occasion to reflect on how science has transformed our world and how it will govern our future.
Copernicus and Galileo discovered nature’s underlying, mathematical simplicity by looking far beyond our everyday experience, using a combination of reason, careful observations and experiment. It took a leap of imagination to realize that, despite appearances, the Earth we stand on is flying around the sun, like a great spaceship, at 30 kilometres a second. The implications were profound: Copernicus liberated the Earth (and us) from the centre of the universe, revealing a world of limitless possibility, and Galileo discovered the basic principles of motion, laying the ground for all of modern engineering.
Great science opens doors to the future. Copernicus and Galileo – and Newton, Maxwell and Einstein, who came after them – set the stage for an age of enlightenment and progress. By seeing through the flaws in current thinking, and looking boldly beyond, they discovered laws of almost magical power that, in time, formed the basis for every modern technology, from computers to space rockets, from cellphones to NMR scanners.
Whether or not their names appear in newspapers, similar forward thinkers exist today. The past two decades have witnessed a revolution in our understanding of the universe – what it’s made of and what forces govern it. I am fortunate, in my position, to interact with some of today’s most brilliant minds – particularly young, rising talent – whose work is seeding new theories and new understanding that will lead to new technologies likely to be equally vital to our future.
In 2012, humanity is faced with challenges that feel overwhelming and insoluble – such as climate change, food, water and energy shortages, ecosystem damage and a population explosion. But if we can learn anything from our past, it’s that we’ve only scratched the surface of our capacity to discover, improve and achieve great things through science. We now know how to eradicate deadly diseases, how to share information around the globe in a flash, and how to map the entire visible universe – achievements Copernicus would have found mind-boggling. And we have seen how countries such as Brazil, China and India have, by unleashing their people’s productivity, transformed themselves from underdeveloped nations into economic superpowers.
Science and the education that unlocks new talent are the tools that will allow us to face the future. Instead of becoming paralyzed with anxiety over the problems that confront us, we should embrace education and science as sources of optimism. Working as a global civilization to make the most of our assets – especially the minds of our young people – through strategic, long-term planning and investments, we must seek the breakthrough advances we need before the breaking points come.
This week, as Canada welcomes the world’s scientific community to meet, share discoveries and contemplate the future, let us commit to working together to make education more effective and empowering, and to globally accelerate the pace of discovery and innovation. For only then will we be able to solve the problems of today and navigate a path to a bright future.
Neil Turok is director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. He is also co-chair of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that opens in Vancouver on Feb. 16.
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