THE CHALLANGE OF A NEW VIEWPOINT; 1980s CHALLENGE OF THE SCIENCES

After 3 1/2 centuries, Pope John Paul II finally did the right thing by Galileo. Last December he, in effect, pardoned the 17th-century scientist's "crime" of promoting the Copernican heresy that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But, while the conviction was a personal tragedy for Galileo, who lived thereafter under house arrest, it hardly suppressed the heresy.

Astronomer-historian Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory has been studying surviving copies of Copernicus's book. He told the American Astronomical Society recently that, while a censorship order to make "corrections" in the book was about 60 percent effective in Italy, none of the Portuguese or Spanish copies seem to have been touched. The authority of established dogma was no match for a demonstrate scientific concept founded solidly on reliable data and capable of predictions that could be verified by new observations.

It is a lesson to remember as the development of the sciences in the 1980s challenges cherished beliefs as profoundly, and sometimes as uncomfortably, as did the Copernican "heresy" or Darwin's evolutionary theory.

As noted in the first article in this series, the translation of new biological knowledge into commercial processes raises major social issues. But the new knowledge being generated also is forcing people to think more deeply about their concepts of life and a man, as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) points out in its recent report to Congress, "Science and Technology: A Five Year Outlook."

The report was made under a mandate to inform Congress of the current state of significant research areas and of issues within those areas that could be of special concern over the next five years. (The report is being published by W. H. Freeman & Co., San Francisco.)

The NAS begins by noting the awesome sweep of humanity's horizons that the sciences have opened up since Galileo's time. "Our view of the universe about us now ranges outward to the galaxies, back in time to the origin of life and of the universe, and inward into the nucleus of the atom and the molecular basis of heredity," it says. One would think that the urge to suppress scientific thought would be thoroughly squelched by now. But it has emerged anew as the risks of technology have become evident and especially in regard to the new biological probings. Even some scientists have joined in questioning whether all lines of research that could be pursued should be pursued. It is a controversy certain to continue strongly in the '80s.

To begin with, there is the question of what is life. Is it just another set of remarkable chemical processes or does it have unique status in the cosmos? Summing up the current biological view, the academy explains: "It is not unreasonable to say that the secret of life has been discovered -- or, better, that many secrets have been discovered. Each involves known physical and chemical forces. These results make it very unlikely that any vital forces remain to be discovered. . . . However, this triumph of the mechanistic approach to biology in no way diminishes the unique qualities and the marvel of the living world and the human spirit. Rather, we an only stand in awe. . . . Although there is no unique vital force in living organisms, there is a unique molecular basis for their organization which is not found in the inorganic world: the molecular storage of information programming the development and function of the organism."

Those who question the extent to which this "unique" phenomenon called life should be studied are concerned partly with safety: Will dangerous new organisms be created? Will the knowledge be used in harmful ways?

"Since virtually any knowledge is double- edged, and since its consequences cannot be predicted in detail, our society has proceeded wisely, in our view, in the belief that on balancem knowledge is less likely to be dangerous than is ignorance," the academy observes, adding, "Our society is trying to assess and to regulate harmful technological applications earlier before damage occurs but has declined to regulate research on the basis of speculations about possibly harmful applications."

Beyond the question of safety, critics are concerned with the proprietary of certain lines of research, especially as they touch human being. There have been emotional outcries against work on the genetic basis of human behavior and intelligence -- research that raises awkward questions of inherent differences between races. As the academy notes, ". . . [such] types of new biological understanding raise fears that deeper insights into human nature might imperil a just and decent society. . . . The problem will not remain confined to genetics. Eventually, advances in sociobiology, neurobiology, and the behavioral sciences are also likely to conflict with treasured preconceptions, widely held to be indispensible foundations for public morality."

In making this assessment, the academy has left little doubt where it stands on the issue of research freedom: "Human curiosity cannot be permanently extinguished, nor can the scientific method be unlearned," it says, adding, "Someone will learn, somewhere, sometime. Moreover, the realities will be there , whether or not scientists are permitted to find them; and if we build social policies on false assumptions, which contradict reality, we will be building on a crumbling foundation. A democratic and open society, therefore, has no choice but to defend freedom of inquiry, just as it defends freedom of expression."

There seems little reason to doubt that the academy is right in highlifting this controversial field as one where the issues of regulation of scientific research and limits to its scope are most likely to be hotly debated in the next few years. And, in spite of the academy's strong plea for freedom, there is no certainty today that society will continue to grant it.

Meanwhile, there are other limits to scientific knowledge that even the champions of intellectual free enterprise do not question. The academy explains: "Scientific knowledge is synthetic, enormous in its extent, powerful; but it is slight compared to what is now known . . . we remain uncertain about seemingly common-sense questions, such as the effects of different pollutants on human health. These uncertainties simply indicate questions whose answers are not yet part of the core of agreed-on science. That core will expand, but it will always be smaller than needed to answer unambiguously all questions asked by society."

In other words, in deciding some of the big issues facing society in the '80s -- issues that might seem "scientific" -- we are largely on our own. Energy policies, for example, will have to be decided without really knowing whether or not it is wise to place heavy reliance on coal. As the NAS report notes, questions of air-pollution health hazards associated with coal cannot be answered with any scientific certainly.

Then there is concern as to what extent, if any, carbon dioxide (CO[2]) released by increased burning of coal and its derivatives might affect climate -- a problem the academy calls "so important as to require special mention." This heat-trapping gas, accumulating in the atmosphere, conceivably could warm the planet. "The amount [of atmospheric CO[2]] will double within two generations, if present trends continue; the result could be a significant climatic readjustment, perhaps a general warming of a few degrees Celsius with several times as much near the poles," the academy says.

This could affect agriculture if it shifted rainfall belts, as some climatological studies suggest it might. The academy warns: "If these projections are valid, hard choices lie ahead, such as substantially reducing the combustion of fossil fuels worldwide, in the face of growing demand for them , especially by developing countries." However, it could be decades before meteorologists could say with any certainty whether or not the projections are valid. Meanwhile, energy decisions must be made.

Thus the natural limits of scientific knowledge challenge the comfortable assumption that such awkward, but nevertheless "scientific," issues can be resolved by a little more research. Making socially important decisions on technological questions without the guidance of established and relevant scientific knowledge is a skill that mankind needs urgently to develop.

Not all the outlook for the sciences is so disquieting. There is also exhilarating prospect of new breakthroughs in fundamental knowledge. Nowhere is this more promising than in the study of what the NAS report calls "the structure of matter." Physical scientists in many fields -- from deep-space astronomy to high-energy (particle) physics -- are beginning to see an underlying unity emerging in their researches. This promises a synthesis of knowledge about the nature and history of the cosmos with that about the basic forces underlying the ultimate particles of which matter is made.

New instruments in orbiting satellites, plus ground-based observatories, now can study the cosmos through virtually all wavelengths of radiation, from the infrared to high-energy gamma rays. This is enabling astrophysicists t gain data on phenomena whose characteristics still reflect conditions at the birth of the universe. They are getting a clearer view of the universe. They are getting a clearer view of the so-called cosmic background radiation -- a bath of radio energy that pervades the cosmos and is believed to be left over from the universe's birth in a "Big Bang" explosion of primordial substance. Recently, astronomers have reported indications that intergalactic gas and a large cluster of galaxies may also represent material left over from that remote cosmic creation, some 15 billion years ago.

New equipment -- such as a telescope orbiting above the obscurations of the atmosphere, to be launched in 1983, and a gamma-ray observing satellite with 10 times the measurement sensitivity now possible, which is featured in President Carter's 1981 budget -- are expected to "help resolve some of the important cosmological and astrophysical questions," the NAS report says.

These include such basic questions as whether the universe will expand forever -- or whether it contains enough mass for the force of its own gravity eventually to halt the expansion and even cause the universe to collapse.

Another such basic question asks whether or not so-called "black holes" actually exist. These are objects in such a highly collapsed state that their gravitational fields are too strong even for light to escape them. There are some indications that astronomers may have located one or two black holes, but no definitive proof. Astrophysicists would like such proof, for the possibility of black holes is an important deduction from Einstein's general theory of relativity.

At the other end of cosmic scale there is the propect of new definitive insights into the fundamental particles underlying material structure. The academy notes: "It is expected that there will be rapid progress during the next few years in unraveling the relationships between particles and forces. We seem to be on the threshold of tying together the weak, electromagnetic, and strong interactions."

The weak force, or "interaction" as physicists call it, is involved in certain radioactive decay processes. The strong force is that which binds an atomic nucleus together.

At a more speculative level, there also are indications that theorists are groping toward a "grand unification" of forces that would include gravity. Such a unification would tie physical phenomena on all known scales into one coherent body of knowledge. Among other things, a theory uniting gravity with subatomic phenomena is needed to fully understand black holes. Thus, the discovery of definite evidence that black holes exist would spur on the search for such a theory.

Commenting on this part of the NAS report, Robert G. Sachs of the University of Chicago explains in the journal Physics Today, unity is indeed the prevailing theme. "We emphasize unity," he says, "because the complex behavior of the physical universe makes the simplicity and unity of the laws of nature very obscure from the viewpoint of the casual observer. Yet it is the fundamental reason for the success and importance of the science of [of physics]."

Increasingly, he notes, physicists are finding this unity as it is becoming clearer how general principles and common laws are shared by such diverse phenomena as the birth of the universe, the flow of air through a hurricane, and the orchestrated set of chemical process involved in the unfoldment of a flower.

No one knows why there should be such unity in nature. But faith in it is a driving force of the scientific enterprise. "A basic tenet of physical science is that allm natural phenomena can be described by a very sparse set of principles and mathematical relationships valid throughout the universe," Dr. Sachs explains, adding, "In view of the great diversity and complexity of natural phenomena, there is no obvious reason for the validity of this assumption, which has its origin in the metaphysical concept of the fitness of things; but our faith in it has been justified over and over again by experience. There is no greater miracle than the continual, successful reduction of the rich complexity of nature of simple principles comprehensible to humankind."

This is Galileo's real vindication.

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