Thursday, February 11, 2010

SCIENCE SHAPES THE SOCIETY- Special article, Prof.K.Nageshwar

The study of human evolution through the ages clearly shows that science and technology have been the key elements in determining how society evolved to become what it is today. During the 10 to 15 million years of evolution of present Homo Sapiens from an ape like being, the most significant development was the evolution of human brain. This contains most of the abilities that separate Man from other animals.

Human beings developed four highly important abilities. Tool making and the intelligent manipulation of objects which involves coordination between the eye and the hand; speech and sophisticated vocabulary which enabled intelligent communication; the capacity of social development which enabled Man to cooperate within family or tribe; and finally, the ability to reason logically. This is the newest of Man’s attributes and of course the most crucial one that separates Man from an animal.

Science which can be defined as a systematic study of anything had its roots in this process of logical reasoning, Man developed all this tool making, speech, social development and logical reasoning in his struggle to live and survive in a hostile environment. Man acquired and developed all these skills in a stiff competition with all the other species in nature, more so, with the Man-like species. These same skills had enabled Man to wipe out similar species and win over all the other species in the nature to emerge as a dominant species on this planet Earth.

Science can broadly be defined as the knowledge of the general laws of nature and a systematic study of any event experienced by Man in its perception. These natural laws are instrumental in creating life on earth.

The evolution and emergence of Man as the most dominant and intelligent species on earth itself is a scientific truth. Man at the dawn of civilization interacted and grappled with nature in his determined bid for survival. Thus he knowingly or unknowingly developed techniques of science by unraveling the governing laws of nature. The modern scientific development is the result of Man’s penchant for conquering nature due to his insatiable appetite for material well-being.

The historical perspective of science has to be understood to know how the relationship between Man, society and science transformed over a period of time.

Human beings acquired new traits and skills in the process of surviving and developing by adapting himself to nature. At the initial stage, he considered all natural phenomena like fire, thunder, rain etc as a creation or a curse of some super natural entity. But a series of accidents led to the discovery of fire. The invention of fire was perhaps the first scientific achievement of Man. Later in his effort to gather more and more food to feed himself or probably a group in which he is a part, Man developed sharp-edged weapons.

Then, there was succession of stone age, the iron age, the bronze age and the copper age, Each age was characterized by capabilities to use a particular kind of material for hunting or fighting and for other purposes. This is how Man developed his knowledge about different metals and their utility. The most remarkable of all these was the transition from stone age to iron age. The iron tools and weapons replacing stone ones significantly enhanced man’s food gathering capacities and gave him greater competitive advantage in his battle against other animals.

The advent of agriculture In due course, he started agriculture and began to study weather and planet. The advent of agriculture heralded a new phase in the human history. Man moved from food gathering stage to food producing stage.

The compulsions of agriculture made the Man to change his nomadic lifestyle and the early man began to settle down around the sources of water. The rudiments of this feature are seen even today. These human settlements for the purpose of agriculture gave rise to the river valley civilizations in India. China, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Thus, canals were dug, irrigation systems were planned, mud bases were laid as roads. These were some of the positive evidences of Man’s ability to think scientifically.

Still, they were helpless and bewildering at rain and thunder, earth quake and volcanic eruption, drought and floods. Until the advent of agriculture, the amount of food gathered was not sufficient to be fed. Man formed into clusters to maximize food gathering and protect from hostile environment. Even this group activity was not adequate to feed themselves. This was the natural limitation on Man’s endeavor.

The invention of settled agriculture enhanced the production of food beyond the requirements of consumption. The development of water logging techniques, irrigation, animal husbandry etc have accentuated this trend further. Thus perhaps for the first time in human evolution, human beings got ample time to reflect and get into creative activity.

But all of these were closely related to everyday human life and activity. In the process, new skills techniques and objects were developed. Though their development involved high degree of coordination between eye, brain and hand. There was no process of intellectual understanding in it. Technology progressed in terms of techniques in succession. This again in turn resulted in development of new techniques and objects. The remarkable one of these achievements was the invention of steam engine.

The development of steam engine had an immense societal impact. But it was not developed from an understanding of thermo dynamics. But it was a progressive innovation of trial and error.

Development of scientific thought Science developed as a result of curiosity related to one’s surroundings and a variety of natural phenomena seen around. Science was an off-shoot of logical reasoning inherent to human brain. Great centres of human civilization and culture, particularly India, China, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, Egypt, Greece and Rome witnessed several important discoveries that underpinned later scientific development. For instance, ancient India was the birth place of great scientific developments. The important mathematical developments like invention of zero and decimal system were invented by ancient Indians. The modern cataract operation was described in Susruta and Charaka Samhitas. The contribution of Dhanwantari to Indian system of medicine is still unparallel. The later-day mathematical innovations like Euler’s theorems and Pythagorous theorems and their underpinnings in Brahma Samputa Sidhanta of ancient India. Similarly, historians explain that ancient Indian scientist Acharya Nagarjuna carried out Alchemy experiments of Nagarjunakonda which presently fall in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Kapila, Bhaskara, Aryabhatta were the illustrious scientists of ancient epoch.

But these scientific developments lacked self sustaining growth pace. This was the period scientific thought was clouded by philosophical thinking. The great Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle was the classic example of this epoch.

This kind of philosophical thinking continued for another few hundred years. Modern Scientific thinking took a turn for systematic and all-round development during the period of renaissance that swept the Europe in the later part of the fifteenth century. This was the time when Copernicus challenged the Platonic idea of planetary motion. Copernicus proposed the scientific principle that Earth and all other planets revolve round the sun. The formulations of Copernicus was vehemently opposed by Church and conservatives.

This period saw an intense battle between science and religion, especially in the West, for supremacy over each other. Several scientists suffered untold miseries and had to sacrifice lives at the altar for upholding scientific truth. Bruno was burnt alive. Galileo who discovered telescope and confirmed scientifically the pronouncements of Copernicus had to declare his findings wrong under the threat to his life from religious fundamentalists. Almost during the same period, William Harvey discovered circulation of blood dispelling the fundamentalist perception that human body was beyond Man’s cognition.

This belligerent battle between science and theology that continued for couple of centuries, however, was decisively resolved in favour of science. Though several natural phenomena are still mystic and beyond scientific reasoning, science was emancipated from theology. Thus, in the subsequent period while religion and theology has shaped the spiritual conscience of society, science has effected material advances in human society.

The contributions of Newton, Kepler, Darwin etc have formidably shaped the future of science and society in the ages that followed.

In the modern epoch science has shrunk the world and made it a small place. It has demonstrated its unique capability to usher in unbelievable prosperity to mankind and also its destructive capacity to effect conflicts, especially that of nuclear ones which can even annihilate the very humanity.

The dawn of scientific and industrial revolutions in Europe a couple of centuries ago have led to self-sustained and exponential growth of science and technology.

This epoch was also uniquely characterized by the fact that two streams of human knowledge –science on one hand and techniques and technology on the other – came together. Science and technology have developed a symbiotic and close relationship between each other. Technology registered spectacular advances particularly through the use of scientific method and this in turn facilitated greater scientific advances. For instance, transistor was a particular technological advancement achieved through the application of scientific principle. But this magnificent technological advance was at the back of scintillating scientific advances of the subsequent years.

The world of science entered the twentieth century with the towering personality of a scientist and philosopher – Albert Einstein.

Dual Nature But this period brought a dual nature to science and technology. Science and technology has, of late, acquired in itself an unprecedented power to either bring in unbelievable prosperity and happiness to mankind or unforgettable disaster.

For instance, the first four decades of this century saw advances in nuclear physics that culminated in the invention of atom bomb in 1945. The portentous threat of nuclear war still looms large over humanity.

But, this same nuclear energy is contributing to the energy requirements of the world. The countries like Sweden have small nuclear reactors after every few kilometers meeting the power needs of local people. The nuclear science is also being used in medicine, industry, agriculture and other areas today.

The advances in quantum mechanics and solid state physics have led to the invention of transistor in 1947. This opened up innumerable possibilities in micro electronics. It also resulted in the development of modern computer communication systems and heralded the information age which shall change the face of the world totally in the years to come.

The inventions in biology helped to understand the human body systems at molecular and cellular level. Genetic code has been unraveled. Medicine, agriculture and even industry made significant progress as a result of these inventions. At the same time, the achievements in organ transplantations have brought into focus some serious ethical and legal questions. The invention of jet engine, development of concepts of pipeline and containerization have radically transformed the transport scenario. These facilitated swift movement of cargo increasing the quantum of trade and has spreading the prosperity in the world.

Similarly, advances in chemistry like the development of polymers, plastics and synthetic fibers have substantially benefited poor even in the remote hinterlands. Science and technology have become double-edged weapons. The weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological and nuclear – still threaten the peace and security in the world. Until the modern epoch, science and technology shaped the destiny of mankind. But slowly and steadily, Man has acquired the capacity to intervene and determine the nature and destiny of science and technology.

New challenges

The most recent threat to the advancement of science and technology had come from the patent and intellectual property regime. Science is no one’s exclusive domain. It is universal and is systemic accumulation of knowledge. There can not be any advanced scientific or technological development without someone laying the scientific research base. Therefore, no individual or nation can command an exclusive monopoly over scientific and technological knowledge.

But the intellectual property regime enforces such restrictions. As a result, scientists will become richer. But science will become poorer. Science and technology instead of promoting the welfare of entire humanity will only perpetuate the existing inequalities. At the same time, any innovation in science should be properly rewarded to provide enough motivation to undertake further innovations. There should be a balance between the legitimate aspirations of innovators and the need to diffuse knowledge for the betterment of entire humanity. Such a balance is vital for the healthy development of science.

Conclusion Science has acquired the capacity to bring in prosperity or cause a catastrophy. It is only the human wisdom that shall determine the destiny of science.

When nuclear energy was used for military purpose, towering scientists like Einstein came out against it and built up peace movements. The vision of Einstein that science should be used for human progress rather than destruction should be the guiding philosophy of modern science.

SCIENCE SHAPES THE SOCIETY- Special article, Prof.K.Nageshwar


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