How science transformed the world in 100 years and why we should get involved, according to Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan

How science transformed the world in 100 years and why we should get involved, according to Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan

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In an essay for the BBC, Nobel Prize winner and President of the Royal Society, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, contemplates the nature of scientific discovery: how it has transformed our worldview in a short space of time, and why we need to be more attentive today than ever before in the way the research results are used.


If we could miraculously transport the most intelligent people from around 1900 to the present world, they would be astonished to see that we now understand things that have puzzled humans for centuries.

Just over a hundred years ago, people had no idea how we inherited and transmitted our features or how a single cell could become an organism.

I did not know that the atoms had structure: the word itself means indivisible.

I did not know that matter has very strange properties that defy common sense.

Or why there is gravity.

And they had no idea how things started, whether it was life on Earth or the Universe itself.

In these days, thanks to fundamental discoveries, we can clear or at least begin to unveil those mysteries.

It has transformed the way we see the world and often our daily lives.

Much of what we take for granted today is the result of an interaction between science and technology, with one pushing the other forward.

Venki RamakrishnanCopyright of the imageROYAL SOCIETY
Image captionModern inventions are often based on discoveries that are hundreds of years old, says Venki Ramakrishnan.

Almost all modern inventions have one or many fundamental discoveries that make it possible.

Sometimes, those fundamental discoveries were made hundreds of years ago.

Neither jet engines nor rockets would be possible without the knowledge of the laws of motion of Isaac Newton , for example.

There are great moments in science, such as the discovery of the DNA structure that changed our perspectives.

But even that discovery was a milestone that relied on the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Johann Mendel and foreshadowed today’s biotechnology in which all the DNA of a human being, the human genome, has been sequenced.

That in turn has given us the ability to discover how genetic diseases happen and, potentially, how to solve them.

Recently, scientists were able to modify a girl’s genes to cure her cancer.

We are no longer a complete black box , although our complexity is such that we are just beginning to understand how our genes regulate the body and how they interact with our environment.

Genetic technologies are likely to confront society with important questionsabout how we see ourselves and what we want to use our greater understanding and ability.

That is also true of the Big Bang theory about how the Universe was born.

A hundred years ago, mysteries such as the way in which the Universe came into existence were, for many, firmly under the dominion of faith.

Encouraged by the observation that the Universe is not constant, but that galaxies are always expanding, moving away from the others, we could determine that the Universe began with a Big Bang from a point.

This knowledge gives us an idea about what is perhaps the most important of all the questions: where did everything come from?

The idea makes our small blue dot seem smaller and smaller, but our search for knowledge of what is outside shows no symptoms of an inferiority complex.

From the Apollo missions to the Cassini spacecraft, from the Hubble telescope to the search for gravitational waves and exoplanets, all the advances seem to be getting more inquisitive about space .

Today, much of how we see the world is through an electronic screen.

Computers in all their forms are sources of knowledge, but they are also increasingly the way we introduce ourselves to the rest of the world and interact with others.

Even an omnipresent object like a smartphone depends on many fundamental discoveries.

Its powerful computer relies on integrated chips formed by transistors whose discovery depends on an understanding of quantum mechanics.

GPS on a smartphone depends on correcting satellites’ time using both special and general theories of relativity, theories that people once thought would be of no practical value .

I wonder how many understand all the discoveries that make that box work.

Auto without driverCopyright of the imageGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe learning machines have led to the first cars without a driver.

Computers are also driving developments that will continue to challenge our view of the world.

The learning machines are already between us and are changing the reality in which we live .

They offer great potential in areas that include medical care and the improvement of other public services, and may soon result in driverless cars and sophisticated robots.

But we must make conscious decisions about how we want intelligent machines to allow humanity to thrive.

The discoveries in themselves are morally neutral, but our use of them is not.

One discovery that changed our view of the world in two clearly divergent directions was nuclear fission.

His discovery led to the development of the most destructive weapons known.

Some argue that the fear of destruction has been a powerful motivator for peace, but this is not a stable solution, as can be seen with the current situation with North Korea.

On the other hand, nuclear fission also promised a reliable source of energy that was once optimistically predicted to be “too cheap to measure.”

TV from South KoreaCopyright of the imageAFP
Image captionFear of destruction may have acted as a deterrent some time, but may no longer guarantee a stable situation.

Science is the pursuit of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us.

That search for knowledge has also shaped the way we view the world, as well as the application of knowledge.

It has transformed our lives, generally for good.

Today we live almost twice as long as our ancestors in 1900 and the quality of our lives is much better than it was then.

But the uses of science and technology are not only shaped by science and scientists. They depend on an interaction of cultural, economic and political factors.

Science is a triumph of human knowledge and we can all share that emotion.

At the same time, understanding its multiple uses can help us get involved in decisions that affect us all.

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