The pure spirit of science

Science isn't about putting any nation first. It is about putting humanity's quest for knowledge first.

CERN/AP
SCIENTISTS ATTEND TO THE WORLD’S BIGGEST ATOM SMASHER AT THE EUROPEAN ORGANIZATION FOR NUCLEAR RESEARCH, NEAR GENEVA.

A nation, like an individual, climbs a hierarchy of needs, even if they aren’t exactly the ones specified by Abraham Maslow. A nation has to cover the basics for its people – competent government, efficient infrastructure, security, public health, basic welfare. A progressive nation might aspire to higher goals after that – justice, environmental stewardship, peaceful relations, arts and culture, which bring color and texture to life. But at the apex of any nation’s hierarchy must be the scientific quest for knowledge, for deeper understanding of humanity and the universe.

Science is expensive. While it can yield important economic benefits, that is seldom its near-term achievement. Science is humanity at its non-mercenary best – borderless, collaborative, indifferent to politics and opinion. For myself, no national scientific endeavor has been as inspiring as the race to the moon. While the United States got there first, the plaque that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind bore no hints of America first: These were travelers “from the planet Earth” who “came in peace for all mankind.”

That spirit is evident in thousands of labs, research centers, and exploratory expeditions around the world – anywhere pure research and the quest for knowledge is pursued. In a Monitor cover story (click here), Jerry Guo takes us inside one of them: McMurdo Station in Antarctica. As with almost all scientific efforts, hundreds of support personnel back up a comparatively small group of scientists. Some, like Jerry, are cooks. Others fix pipes, tune engines, ferry supplies, and keep the station safe and orderly.

It takes much more than a village to ensure that the 200 or so scientists approved by the United States National Science Foundation each year can focus on inquiries whose topics range from flora and fauna in the Southern Ocean to volcanoes on the continent’s stormy surface, the effect of climate change on the polar environment to the detection of cosmic neutrinos deep below the surface ice.

Folks at McMurdo work hard. They also get bored, feel isolated, have conflicts, and need to blow off steam in their confined space. They are guys and gals, after all, who can’t take a drive or go on a walkabout in the frigid climate. Researchers trying to understand the needs of future inhabitants of a moon or Mars base have studied McMurdo and other polar enclaves in an attempt to understand the best ways of dealing with stresses and strains that might occur. 

Science doesn’t always require humans to undergo extreme conditions, to pit themselves against the elements. But the acquisition of knowledge will always be a frontier experience that requires daring – sometimes physical, more often intellectual. We’ll need pizza and dancing and any fresh strawberries we can manage along the way. But the prize – whether sought by the HMS Beagle in the 19th century, Apollo 11 in the 20th, or a planetary expedition in the 21st – is always the same: better understanding of our universe.

Science is more than a national endeavor. It is a project undertaken by travelers from planet Earth for all mankind.

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