Making a Case for Science in the Modern World

IS SCIENCE NECESSARY? ESSAYS ON SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS by Max F. Perutz, New York: E.P. Dutton, 285 pp., $19.95

HOT controversy over cold fusion. Supertanker spills and supercollider spending. Planetary probes and problematical pesticides.

Scientific issues are as close to us as the evening news. Yet, as a whole, Americans are largely ignorant of the workings of science needed to truly understand many of these important events.

To help us, popularizers of science have attempted to take our hands and walk us ever so carefully into the world of natural science.

It's no easy task. To oversimplify the science behind the subject leaves laymen still ignorant of the real issues - perhaps worse off because they now think (wrongly) that they're well informed. Yet to yank laymen too quickly into the world of complex equations and abstract concepts produces only frustration and defeat.

In ``Is Science Necessary?'' Max F. Perutz for the most part treads carefully between these pitfalls. He emerges with a readable volume that offers some useful insights into how science is done and what its role in society can and should be. But in strongly defending the role technology has played in benefiting mankind, and playing down its detrimental side effects, the book may cause some readers to conclude that Perutz is the lackey of chemical, drug, and nuclear power companies.

The book's title comes from the opening essay, based on a lecture given by Perutz, who is a molecular biologist. In it, he argues with what he presumes to be a skeptical public that modern science has more than justified its existence. In agriculture, for example, the green revolution caused a doubling of world food production between 1950 and 1971. He defends pesticides - even infamous DDT - as, on balance, great boons to mankind and attributes longer life spans to improvements in sanitation and the development of antibiotics.

Yet the greatest hope for future improvements in longevity, he posits, may be in reducing auto accident fatalities through buckling up, improved car and road design, public education. He designates nuclear power as the safest way to generate the enormous energy needs of the future. The Chernobyl disaster was the result of poor design and poor management, errors that were not duplicated in the West. Three Mile Island was caused by faulty maintenance and bad operating procedures, but also showed that the containment system was basically sound and worked in preventing any significant radiation leakage.

The last half of the book consists of a series of shorter essays, many of them reviews of other books on science. Perutz looks back at his own work during World War II on a bizarre project to create floating ``ice islands'' for use by Allied planes as they crossed the Atlantic. War, with its secrecy and inefficiency, he concludes, is not a conducive atmosphere for good science. His accounts of his treatment by British authorities (he had escaped from Austria and thus was of suspicious background) and his deportation to a prisoner-of-war camp in Canada provides a fascinating aside. Yet even in the camp, he finds himself gathering with other scientists and holding informal seminars.

In ``How to Become a Scientist,'' Perutz offers his explanation of why science fascinates those who do it.

``Good science is no rose bed,'' he says, ``but the romance is still there. The thrill outweighs the drudgery, the despair at one's inadequacy, the fight for financial support, the setbacks and mistakes, the long hours, and the nagging fear of being overtaken. A discovery is like falling in love and reaching the top of a mountain after a hard climb all in one, an ecstasy induced not by drugs but by the revelation of a face of nature that no one has seen before and that often turns out to be more subtle and wonderful than anyone had imagined.''

A ``myth'' of an idyllic rural life, before the advent of modern science, may have ``engendered the antiscience sentiment so prevalent today,'' he says, noting that many writers have painted far too rosy a picture of life without modern science. As a good scientist, he cites statistics to shore up his argument. Yet Perutz perhaps overstates his case when he claims that religion ``persuades humble people to endure their hard lot; the politician urges them to rebel against it; and the scientist thinks of a method that does away with the hard lot altogether.''

Many readers may feel it's more likely that all three must work together to advance humanity in the way Permutz advocates.

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