"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


  Science and the nation are inextricably intertwined. The economic and military strength of the county is based upon the technologies that have sprung from our basic science research. Likewise our medical system is fully dependent on a mixture of medical research and physical sciences detector development. Thus the health, well being, safety of our country's citizens depends very directly on the technological fruits of scientific research.

George F. Smoot

Dear President Bush,

Standard Long Term Analysis in Style of Business and Government

Science and the nation are inextricably intertwined. The economic and military strength of the county is based upon the technologies that have sprung from our basic science research. Likewise our medical system is fully dependent on a mixture of medical research and physical sciences detector development. Thus the health, well being, safety of our country's citizens depends very directly on the technological fruits of scientific research.

If the USA is to remain the premier nation on Earth, then it must maintain a robust scientific research program. The appropriate level is open to societal debate; however, many businesses, e.g. drug companies and advanced electronic companies, have developed guidelines at a few percent of their total budget. The issue is not can the country afford this level of expense, but whether it can afford not to continue an active, high-quality basic research program.

In terms of defense this is obvious. One only needs to ask the question: What would be the consequence if some other country to develop a new energy-directed or new generation bio-weapon, before the US did and created countermeasures? However, that same thing is true for major new technologies in the economic and health arenas? Basic scientific research is so key to the long-term viability of the nation, that even though the pay off is often years out, it is current priority. Change can be so rapid in technology that ten years is often two generations.

A strong scientific research program is not sufficient alone. Clearly, there must be sufficient infrastructure. The most key ingredient is a scientifically literate work force and general population. Just as it is clearly wise to invest in science, investment in education (science, mathematics, critical thinking) is better than exporting technical jobs, electronically or otherwise, to other countries (e.g. India, Russia, etc.) with stronger educational systems. No matter how good an infrastructure the nation has, it still must have the people to run it and the scientists and engineers to create and design the next generations. It is hard to believe that the country would hire foreign mercenaries for military and daily operations.

At present we enjoy a very good lifestyle. The primary question for the nation and civilization as a whole is: What is it that allows this? What has been the big change since the stone age? What steps can we take to keep this and progress to the next level? Are humans smarter, harder working, or any another way significantly better raw material now than in the stone age? One surmises most of the difference in physical attributes can be ascribed to better nutrition and medical care.

The Human Future for Stone-Age Man?

It appears in fact that most humans use our technological infrastructure to live a lifestyle with which a stone-age human could readily identify. People live in shelters—houses or apartments rather than caves. The go out daily to make their livelihood—now in SUVs, cars, commuter trains rather than most by foot. People gather by electronic fires (TV) or in bars ­most probably more isolated than the stone-age clans. In general the bulk of people live in, exploit, and make up a large cultural and technological infrastructure. They take advantage of the base accumulated by humanity.

Nearly all the advances are made by a very small fraction of the population—the innovators—mostly scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs. The society and nation, which encourages, nurtures, and makes this innovation possible and exploits it, will proper in many ways.

Humans as a whole really have not have changed basically since the stone age. Natural selection has not really changed humans since humans became the dominant species. In some regions local culture has instilled in its people respect for law and human life but even in those places the people will go to war when threatened. Other regions tribal and clan clashes are a way of life.

If the bulk of humans have not advanced physically, intellectually and socially over the stone age milieu, then new technology can be as easily used for terrorist and criminal activities as for neutral and beneficial activities. Thus as technology improves, the potential for devastating acts of terrorism continues to increase. The logical end would be when it is possible for a small group or single individual to destroy all life on Earth.

For economic, medical, and likely military motivations it is likely that many areas of technology will continue to develop and its potential for positive or negative consequences will increase. This means that, if humans are not changed significantly physically different, then we must understand how to develop a world culture that rejects suicide attacks and then eventually violence to resolve conflict. This would requires a whole program: (1) a better understanding of why people form cults and groups that support such activities, (2) understanding and removing the reservoir of young people (e.g. HAMAS recruits, Jim Jones cult,) (3) demagogic and totalitarian leaders and societies. This is a mixture of social and political science studies and actual programs.

The first step is to assess the various issues and determine what programs can be put in place in the short run and what research should begin soon. Then developing a longer-term program to reduce the threat of terrorism both by technical robustness and by social efforts. Note that El Al is most successful through focusing on the people rather than relying on sophisticated technology. Intelligence comes first and then attention to people. We would prefer not to be in the position of Israel as a country suffering terrorist activities on a very frequent and regular basis. It costs much in terms of casualties, economic, and military activities without any end in sight.

As long as terrorism can be kept at a low level in the country, then the USA can continue most of its development including the scientific research for the future. We also need to invest in the twin programs of being robust against terrorist acts and an active program to convert potential terrorists into positively contributing members of society. Rather than nation building we must engage in civilization building.

The path I did not mention was to stop or slow dramatically scientific research and the development of new technologies and hope or search for a new stability. We cannot stop things completely because other countries already have significant scientific and technological capability. Already third-rate countries, such as Iraq and North Korea, are able to have advanced welcome programs. We could enter new dark ages, the Nuclear Dark Ages or Weapons of Mass Destruction Dark Ages. I don't mean nuclear winter from the exchange of thousands of nuclear weapons; but a more gradual but catastrophe filled deterioration. In the new Dark Ages there will be a repeat of regional wars, blackmail and spoils of war, occasional small nuclear exchanges, all of these leading to a spiraling down of civilization.

George F. Smoot
Professor of Physics
University of California at Berkeley
Leader. NASA's COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) Team
Author (with Keay Davidson) of Wrinkles In Time

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