The history of the modern world is the story of how science has altered human culture. You can date the beginning of the modern world in many different ways. Perhaps it started in 1439 when Gutenberg developed movable type and the printing revolution began. The printed word allows people to store knowledge, and Gutenberg’s invention allowed that knowledge to be distributed widely and relatively cheaply. Or you might say it began in 1765 when James Watt perfected a steam piston and made pumps effective, which then allowed him to modify the piston into an actual steam engine in 1776. That’s an important year: the American Declaration of Independence was signed and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published. The steam engine powered trains and ships, and led to industrial manufacturing and a whole new world.
There are many other turning points when science changed society: Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species, Pasture’s development of germ theory, the Wright Brother’s first flight, Marconi’s wireless, Farnsworth’s television, the first digital computer (ENIAC), and the first nuclear explosion.
From this short list it should be fairly obvious that the world we now live in is the product of scientific advances. It’s a fairly direct line from Watt’s steam engine to steam locomotives to steam driven horseless carriages to Daimler’s petrol powered internal combustion engine to Henry Ford and the mass production of automobiles. The cell phone is the end product of the telegraph (invented by Pavel Schilling but made usable by Samuel Morse’s code), the telephone (invented contemporaneously by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Grey) and Marconi’s wireless telegraph. As another example, the compute I type this on relies, in part, on theories of quantum physics developed by Niels Bohr, and the mathematical theories of Kurt Gödel.
Despite the fact that virtually every aspect of the modern world was created by science, large segments of society are highly skeptical of science. Part of the reason for this is that each scientific advance has challenged deeply held beliefs. Copernicus’ heliocentric model set off a fire storm in the Christian church. William Herschel began his astronomical career looking for men on the moon (really) but the increasingly powerful telescopes he built allowed him to see stars billions of miles from the earth. This observation made it obvious that the universe was far older than described in the Bible, which set off a wave of skepticism of all forms of religious teaching.
Cars changed traditional living patters, planes changed international relations, television allowed us to see how other people lived, which changed our understanding of the world and the people in it. And modern biology changed agriculture and medicine, and the lives we lead. Modern medicine vastly improved our lives, but challenged the long held view that disease is God’s will.
The modern economy is a direct product of science. Many of the scientific advances noted above eventually led to the creation of vast new industries. Electricity not only lighted houses, but led to the development of a vast array of electronic appliances from air conditioners to vacuum cleaners and everything in between.
Despite the fundamental importance of science in the modern economy, we have politicians who are ignorant of, or hostile to, science. State Senator Mike Wilson (R. Bowling Green), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, recently said: “My concern is our students are indoctrinated into one way of thinking without any sort of intellectual freedom. The evidence doesn’t support evolution.”
Medical research is a multi-trillion dollar industry, and is one of the fastest growing fields in the new world economy. Yet we have politicians who want to prevent the teaching of basic evolutionary science, thereby limiting the ability of Kentucky’s students to work in this field.
The modern economy depends on science. In order to improve our economy, we need politicians who understand this, and are willing to support science, even when it challenges traditional ideas. If Kentucky is to fully participate in the Twenty-First Century economy, we need to train a new generation of students who understand this new world and can work in it. But we won’t be able to do that with politicians who are stuck in the past.