This is often one of the hardest things to get across to students… and many other people. The simple fact that science is used in our daily lives to such an extent that we would, literally, be sitting in caves waiting to die without it. Well, some of you would be sitting in caves, waiting to die, I would likely already be dead.
But let me give you a very personal example of this and I’m going to hit some high points in the history of science as we go.
- CE 29
- first references to cataracts and treatment in Ancient Rome.
- CE 200
- Early cataract surgery described by Indian physician
- CE 1000
- Muslim ophthalmologist writes of his invention of the hypodermic needle and the technique of cataract extraction
- Einstein publishes On the Quantum Theory of Radiation (in German)
- Theodore Maiman operates the first functioning laser (Hughes Research Lab)
- My mother is born
- William Bridges (Hughes Aircraft) invents the argon laser
- Excimer laser patented for vision correction
- Steven Trokel performs the first laser surgery on a patient’s eyes
- John Crew first uses lasers to seal damaged blood vessels
- My mother first diagnosed with cataracts
- Mother’s second surgery for cataracts and complications set in
- Use of an argon laser to seal blood vessels damaged by cataract surgery saves my mother’s vision in one eye.
Now, look very carefully at what all happened. We’re talking about almost 2000 years of research. Yes, the first 1500 or so years of research were undirected and confusing. But there were people looking (no pun intended) into this kind of think. The eyes and how they work and how to fix them when there’s a problem.
Look in the early 1900s. Einstein produced a paper of pure, fundamental science. Without that single paper, every that happened later couldn’t have happened. This is why we must have pure research, without a specific goal.
Someone, even now, may be writing the paper that will eventually allow us to exceed the speed of light or live forever.
Now consider that Einstein wasn’t an ophthalmologist or even a doctor. Maiman and Bridges weren’t doctors. But finally, a doctor read about this cool new tech called Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation and thought, “I wonder.”
And the rest was history. And for the most part it was a very abstract, cool, but not important history. Suddenly, today, for me, that history became important.
This is what science is all about. Helping people. Really, it is. Yes, the Large Hadron Collider teams will probably announce the discovery of the Higgs boson tomorrow. But those people all know this kind of history. The Higgs may turn out to be a fundamental technology of our future. Just as lasers and silicon chips are fundamental to our society now.
And more closely, those research physicians, they’re goal is to help people. I’ve known many doctors and they all say the same things. When that little boy walked on that crushed leg again… when I pulled the bandage off and that women could see something for the first time in 30 years… when I repaired the valve of that old man’s heart so he could live to see his grandchild… that’s what really matters.
And none of it could happen without science.
It’s important that we teach our kids that science isn’t that hard class where you may get to blow something up. Science, so much so today, is desperately important to all of us. Correct science.
We, as a species, very well may not survive the next 200 years, because we couldn’t accept what the science was telling us. We, as a species, must understand that science is the only known way to learn new things. No one has ever learned anything new from any other process. Trial and error, that’s science as much as hypothesis and experiment is.
We must also be willing to accept when we are wrong about something. As science learns new things, the conclusions we drew may very well change. It happens. The world changes.
It doesn’t mean that science is wrong and scientists are crooks. It means that they are willing to accept when the results no matter what they wish was true. This is very difficult and many of the worst decisions in the history of our species were made by people who could not accept this simple truth.
Reality doesn’t give a shit what you wish.
So, we have science to thank for my mother’s vision today. And for that, I am grateful to Dr. Miller and all the group at St. Joseph’s and all the people mentioned in this blog post and all the people who ever did any sciency thing along these lines. My mother can see because of you. And I thank you.