Science—Mankind’s Ongoing Search for Truth
Working 20th-Century “Magic”
WHAT appeared in the 19th century to be impossible “magic” has in the 20th become reality. Within a single generation, people went from driving their own Model T Ford to the thrill of watching on color TV men walking on the moon. Far from being viewed as exceptional, scientifically produced “miracles” are today largely taken for granted.
“The scientific achievements of the earlier 20th century,” notes The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “are too immense even to be cataloged.” It refers to “a common pattern of advance,” however, saying that “in each major field, progress was based on the successful descriptive work of the 19th century.” This underscores the fact that science is an ongoing search for truth.
Replaced by Groups
Scientific societies, groups of scientists who met to exchange ideas and information, were formed in Europe as early as the 17th century. In order to make known the latest findings, these societies even began publishing their own journals. This led to an extensive exchange of information that served to consolidate the basis upon which further scientific progress could be made.
By the 19th century, universities had become deeply involved in scientific research, and in subsequent years their laboratories made important discoveries.a By the beginning of the 20th century, business firms were also setting up research laboratories, which in time developed new medicines, synthetic materials (including plastics), and other products. From these the public has benefited, and the researching firms have earned millions of dollars in profits.
The establishment of these laboratories and research groups suggested a trend toward organized research in contrast with individual effort. Some scientists wondered if this was the best approach. In 1939, John D. Bernal, Irish physicist and X-ray crystallographer, posed the question: “Should science advance by the casual co-ordination of the work of gifted individuals, each following his inner light, or by groups or gangs of workers mutually assisting each other and integrating their work according to some preconceived though flexible plan?”
Because of the complexity and high cost of research, Bernal argued for working in groups, saying the problem was simply how to properly organize the activity. He predicted: “Team work will tend increasingly to be the mode of scientific research.” Now, over a half century later, it is apparent that Bernal was correct. The trend has continued, speeding up the process of working 20th-century scientific “magic.”
“What Hath God Wrought!”
On May 24, 1844, this four-word exclamation was successfully telegraphed by Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code, over a distance in excess of 30 miles [50 km]. The 19th-century roots of subsequent 20th-century telecommunications “magic” were now being planted.
Some 30 years later, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was preparing to test a transmitter with Thomas Watson, his assistant, when Bell spilled some acid. His cry, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you,” turned out to be more than just a cry for help. Watson, located in a separate room, heard the message, recognized it as the first fully intelligible sentence ever transmitted by telephone, and came on the run. Ringing telephones have kept people on the run ever since.
During the past 93 years, scientific knowledge, coupled with technological know-how, has provided people in ever greater numbers with a standard of living never before achieved. The world has been reduced to neighborhood size. “Impossible” things have become the norm. In fact, telephones, televisions, automobiles, and airplanes—and any number of other 20th-century “miracles”—are so much a part of our world that we tend to forget that mankind did without them for the major part of its existence.
As the century began, notes The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “the triumphs of science seemed to promise knowledge and power in superabundance.” But the technological advances made in the meantime have not been enjoyed everywhere in equal measure, nor can all of them be classified as unequivocally beneficial. “Few men,” it adds, “could foresee the problems that these very successes would bring to their social and natural environment.”
What Caused the Problems?
No fault can be found with scientific facts that help us to understand the universe better, nor with the technology that in a practical way harnesses them for mankind’s benefit.
These two—science and technology—have long enjoyed kinship. But according to the book Science and the Rise of Technology Since 1800, “their intimate connection, now familiar, was not fully established until quite recently.” Apparently even during the first part of the industrial revolution, the relationship was less than intimate. While newly acquired scientific knowledge contributed to the development of new products, so did craft experience, manual skill, and expertise in mechanical crafts.
After the industrial revolution began, however, the amassing of scientific knowledge accelerated, thereby creating a broader base upon which technology could work. Imbued with fresh knowledge, technology set out to try to devise ways of alleviating drudgery, improving health, and fostering a better, happier world.
But technology can be no better than the scientific knowledge upon which it is based. If scientific knowledge is faulty, any technological developments based upon it will likewise be flawed. Often, side effects will become apparent only after considerable damage has been done. For example, who could have foreseen that the introduction of aerosol sprays using chlorofluorocarbons or hydrocarbons would someday endanger the earth’s protective ozone layer?
Something else is also involved—motive. A dedicated scientist may be interested in knowledge as such and may be willing to spend decades of his life in research. But a businessman, who may be more interested in the pursuit of profits, is eager to put the knowledge to immediate use. And what politician will patiently wait decades before using technology he thinks may give him political leverage if used at once?
Physicist Albert Einstein put his finger on the problem when he said: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” (Italics ours.) Yes, many of the problems created by 20th-century “magic” have arisen not simply because of faulty scientific knowledge but also because of runaway technology motivated by selfish interests.
As a case in point, science discovered that sound and vision could be transmitted to distant places—television. Technology developed the necessary know-how to do so. But it was a wrong mode of thinking on the part of greedy commerce and demanding consumers that put this remarkable knowledge and technology to use in transmitting pornographic pictures and violent scenes of gore into peaceful living rooms.
Likewise, science discovered that matter could be transformed into energy. Technology developed the necessary know-how to do so. But it was a wrong mode of thinking on the part of nationalistic politics that put this knowledge and technology to use in building nuclear bombs that still hang like the Sword of Damocles over the head of the world community.
Keeping Science in Its Place
It betrays a further wrong mode of thinking if people permit technologically developed tools that were designed as slaves to become masters. Time magazine warned of this danger in 1983 when it chose, not its usual man of the year, but a “machine of the year,” the computer.
Time reasoned: “As people rely on the computer to do things that they used to do inside their heads, what happens to their heads? . . . If a dictionary stored in the computer’s memory can easily correct any spelling mistakes, what is the point of learning to spell? And if the mind is freed from intellectual routine, will it race off in pursuit of important ideas or lazily spend its time on more video games? . . . Does the computer really stimulate the brain’s activity or, by doing so much of its work, permit it to go slack?”
Nevertheless, some people are so impressed by scientific accomplishments that they elevate science to virtual godship. Scientist Anthony Standen discussed this in his 1950 book Science Is a Sacred Cow. Even if we allow for possible exaggeration, Standen has a point: “When a white-robed scientist . . . makes some pronouncement for the general public, he may not be understood, but at least he is certain to be believed. . . . Statesmen, industrialists, ministers of religion, civic leaders, philosophers, all are questioned and criticized, but scientists—never. Scientists are exalted beings who stand at the very topmost pinnacle of popular prestige, for they have the monopoly of the formula ‘It has been scientifically proved . . . ’ which appears to rule out all possibility of disagreement.”
Because of this wrong mode of thinking, some people seize upon seeming contradictions between science and the Bible as proof of scientific “wisdom” in contrast with religious “superstition.” Some even see in these so-called contradictions a proof of God’s nonexistence. However, in reality it is not God who is nonexistent but rather the imagined contradictions that clergymen have created by misinterpreting his Word. They thereby insult the Bible’s divine Author and at the same time do a disservice to mankind’s ongoing search for scientific truth.
Additionally, by failing to train their parishioners to exercise the fruitage of God’s spirit, these religious leaders foster an atmosphere of selfishness that causes people to think mainly of their own desires for personal comfort and convenience. This is often at the expense of others, even to the point of misusing scientific knowledge to slaughter fellow humans.—Galatians 5:19-23.
False religion, imperfect human politics, and greedy commerce have shaped people into what they now are, “lovers of themselves, . . . unthankful, . . . without self-control,” egoists who are driven by a wrong mode of thinking.—2 Timothy 3:1-3.
These are the people and organizations that have created the challenges of the 21st century that science is now being called upon to meet. Will it succeed? Read the answer in the final installment of this series in our next issue.
a For example, much of the research for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. crash program that developed the atom bomb, was done in the research laboratories of the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley.
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If scientific knowledge is faulty, developments based on it will be flawed
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Not all scientific achievements are beneficial
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From the Collections of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village