An Age of New Botany

In Week 5, we read “A Tale of Two Botanies” by Amory B. Lovins  (physicist and MacArthur Fellow) and L. Hunter Lovins (lawyer and social scientist). This article was originally published in Wired Magazine in spring of 2000 – but the arguments presented about GMO foods are nearly identical to those in the ongoing debate about their safety today. Reflecting back on this course, I think that this is one of the most interesting and relevant readings.

As hinted by the title, the premise of this article is to compare two different botanies: the old and the new. According to the authors, the agronomy of the ‘old botany’ only transferred genes between plants who could naturally interbreed. By contrast, under the practices of the ‘new botany,’ genes are “mechanically transfer[red]” between plants that would be unable to breed in nature. The new botany is, according to the authors, dangerous. In this post, I would like to examine the authors’ arguments, and then show how the article outlines the Basic Problem as applied to modern agriculture.

The first reason that new botanical practices of today’s agronomy are dangerous is that the resulting organisms are barely tested. It must be acknowledged that this was the case in the ‘old botany,’ also. Under those practices, however, the transfer of genes between breed-able plants did not deviate significantly from nature. By comparison, the practices of the new botany are doing what in nature would be impossible – the transfer of genes between completely unrelated and incompatible organisms.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason today’s botanical practices are dangerous is that once they are implemented, they can easily spread throughout entire ecosystems. Pollen from a field of genetically modified plants can easily spread to neighboring fields with traditional crops or to wild plant life.

The problems identified by Lovins and Lovins are directly applicable to this course, in that the dangers of the new botany perfectly fit out class’s description of the Basic Problem. Genetic modification technologies are advancing faster than society’s concern with them.

But the role of the ‘new botany’ as an example of the Basic Problem is, I would like to argue, unique in that it shows how the Basic Problem can occur on giant scale. From a single lab, seed, and field, the new botany’s dangers can spread to entire ecosystems and even the world. It is in this unique ability to demonstrate the possible scale of the Basic Problem – coupled with the continued relevance of the issue of GMO agriculture – that makes this article particularly strong.



In this week’s response paper, I will reflect back on the impact this class, and all the assigned readings, have had on my outlook towards the world as both a hard science and social science student. Three years ago, in the middle of my second year at the University, I was facing the decision of which major to declare. Unable to decide, I declared both Biology and International Studies – and have continued working towards both degrees in tandem. At the time, I based my decision to major not only in the sciences but also in the humanities on my indecisiveness. Now, having taken this course and looking back, I believe that my problem in deciding majors may actually have been an example of the Basic Problem at work in everyday life. It was not until this class that I could define the problem of choosing between the study of science and society. With the Basic Problem now in my vocabulary, I am now able to articulate my decision. More importantly, I now have readings I can use as evidence in explaining this problem to others.

This class began by examining the remarkable rate at which science is advancing, and questioning if it presents a problem to the long-term success of humanity. In other words, what is the Basic Problem, does it really exist, and if so, what is to be done?

Reflecting on Week 1’s reading, I now agree that the increasing synergy between scientific disciplines is becoming increasingly dynamic and in this way accelerating the rate of scientific discovery. To dispute this seems nearly impossible. I need only to pick up a scientific journal or magazine to find examples of new advances due to the ‘new’ fields of biophysics, bioinformatics, etc. I continue, however, to question the viability of ‘predicting the future’. While I agree with Prof. Chaloupka that the predictions of scientists tend to be more fact-based than those of social critics, they nonetheless fail to account for infinite number uncontrollable variables. Such variables might include natural disasters, political or financial crises, individual choices, etc. The infinite number of confounding variables decreases the accuracy of predictions by scientists and social critics to such small levels that they are essentially equivalent. I believe, therefore, that scientists cannot make predictions about the future any better than social critics can.

If, indeed, this is the case, then what are we to do about understanding and countering the Basic Problem and its potential outcomes? It is in answering this question that the arguments of Chaloupka, Kaku, Bill Joy, Lovins and Lovins, Gerald Schroeder, and those journalists reporting on events such as the Heartbleed virus and Global Warming. It is not necessary to try and predict the future. The risks of the Basic Problem, that is the breakneck speed of scientific advancement and the increasingly ability for individuals to access dangerous technologies, are inherent to it. These risks are the same today as they will be in fifty years – all that might change is the technology we are concerned about. In fact, looking back on Week 1’s readings, I would like to postulate that making predictions of the future may actually make the Basic Problem worse. By making predictions, we convince ourselves that those outcomes are more likely than others, and we prepare for them. But, as I have argued, all outcomes of the future are equally likely, and we must prepare for everything.

Week 2’s reading mostly covered the life, personality, and achievements of Richard Feynman. I enjoyed this reading very much, as it gave me a better understanding of the admirations my physics friends hold for him. Beyond this, however, I also found examining Feynman’s life to be a wonderful case study of the Basic Problem. What fascinated me about Feynman was that someone clearly so brilliant, so humble, and so curious was also a major participant in the Manhattan Project – a perfect example of the Basic Problem. Thinking back, I realize that at the time, the potential for Feynman’s work on the Manhattan Project to lead to the creation of nuclear weapons, and for those weapons to become subject to misuse or accidents, may not have been clear to Feynman. After all, in any scientific field, focus is often strictly academic. Not a single one of my physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, biology, or mathematics classes has ever discussed the dangers of new knowledge and technology. One organic chemistry professor would mention the role of certain compounds in dangerous contexts, but rather than impressing the importance of this on his students, he expressed is excitement that such a small chemical compound could cause so much harm. The involvement of physicists in the Manhattan Project was never discussed in my year of physics classes at the UW. We focused instead on the mathematics behind basic physics phenomena and the solving of problems. While physics classes have, of course, only a limited time to teach students to analyze and solve physics problems, even spending one minute on the Manhattan Project and other real world applications of physics would have improved my understanding of the Basic Problem. I stand with my conclusion from Response Paper 2 that the material taught in JSIS 216 should become part of regular curriculum in schools. Increasing awareness and understanding of the Basic Problem is the first, and most important, step in preventing disasters in the future.

The readings from Week 3 were particularly interesting for me as an International Studies major. The New York Times is often a required course reading for many Jackson School classes, and I was surprised to see that the Basic Problem (although not identified in these terms) was covered as well. I agreed with all the contentions made by the authors of these articles. For example, before reading “Users’ Stark Reminder: As Web Grows, It Grows Less Secure,” I had no idea what “safety culture” was. The Heartbleed incident seemed to me a good example of a missing safety culture. As discussed in the article, software development focuses on quickly creating new ‘goodies’ for consumers to use. This mostly arises from consumers’ demands for speed, novelty, and convenience. It is difficult, in this context, to expect developers of new technology to spend more time testing their products.

I also found “Global Warming Scare Tactics” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger to resonate strongly with my own experience. I clearly recall, for example the 2006 release of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Only fourteen years old at the time, I was shocked by the film. Indeed, it became a trend throughout my school to express your support for Gore’s movement and preventing Global Warming. As my classmates and I advanced in our studies, however, we learned that Gore may have oversimplified much of his argument. As Global Warming became Climate Change in the consciousness of my peers’ minds, a significant number began expressing skepticism about either. If parts of the Global Warming theory were misrepresented and falsely advertised to the public, what was to stop the same from happening with Climate Change? I believe this lesson from Global Warming holds important implications for educating the public on the Basic Problem. It will be crucial to not over sensationalize it for the sake of shock value. Although it may take more time to reach as many people, presenting the Basic Problem in a truthful, logical way will have more effect in the long run.

Finally, I would like to reflect on the Grand Finale revealed in class last Thursday. That the answer to “What is the Meaning of it All?” is in fact, that we do not know. This resonates with me, as somewhere along the line of my education, one of my teachers argued that true knowledge lies in admitting when you do not know something. This has idea has stuck with me throughout the years, and JSIS 216 has brought it to the forefront of my attention again this term. I believe that the first step in addressing the Basic Problem is to admit that we do not know the possible outcomes and misuses of many of the technologies we are developing. Admitting that we do not know is the first step towards making an active effort to research each new technology as it is produced and creating the appropriate safeguards for its use. In the long term, I believe that the simple answer of “I don’t know” will allow us to develop an improved safety culture in which speed and convenience are not always more important than forethought and responsibility.


A Brief Tour

Week 6’s reading, “A Brief Tour Through the Potent Mix of Modern and Ancient Worlds,” takes the Basic problem and applies it for the first time to the concept of religion and faith. Barely half a page into the reading, I was struck by a remarkable point of Prof. Chaloupka: that wisdom is not cumulative, but small bits of wisdom can be kept when we stumble across them. While I believe that rephrasing these bits of wisdom into our own words is also valuable, I wholeheartedly agree with Chaloupka’s insight that the reading primary sources of ‘original’ literature makes us less likely to be swayed by the biased or false interpretations of others.

Before presenting his bits of wisdom as an annotated compilation of readings, Prof. Chaloupka again defines the Basic Problem – but this time, as seen by Robert Cooper. Cooper’s view on the Basic Problem is very philosophical. In fact, it reminds me of the Philosophy 101 class I took four years ago. According to Cooper, “the spread of the technology of mass destruction represents a potentially massive redistribution of power away from the advanced industrial (and democratic) states… away from the state itself and towards individuals, [ie] terrorists or criminals.” This immediately reminds me of Hobbes’s State of Nature, in which every person looks out for themselves and life for all is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To escape the State of Nature, Hobbes’s suggests a mutual contract between individuals and their chosen leaders. This contract gives governments a legitimate monopoly on violence and individuals the promise of protection. The world of the Basic Problem as described by Cooper seems to me like a shift back to the State of Nature – as power slips from the holds of governments to individuals, governments lose their monopolies on violence, and protection by law is no longer guaranteed for people. I believe, then, that the next logical conclusion is that if and when governments lose enough power to individuals, we will return to the State of Nature and civilization will be replaced with anarchy. I am very surprised that Cooper or Prof. Chaloupka did not make the link to Hobbes, the State of Nature, and the implications for humanity directly. It seems to me that despite taking the first step in defining the Basic Problem with the very ‘social science’ term of ‘redistribution of power’, both Cooper and Chaloupka stop short of explicitly connecting it to philosophy (arguable the origin of modern Western social science). Perhaps this is a subconscious embodiment by Cooper and Chaloupka of the Basic Problem itself.

Reading Cooper’s excerpt put me into a philosophical state of mind. As this week’s reading assignment began examining the relationship between science and religion, this led me again to be reminded of my freshman year philosophy course. Unlike the Christian fundamentalist conclusions of LaHaye and Noebel, my class decided that science and religion are not inherently contradictory to each other. Religion, we decided, was based on answering the ‘why?’ questions of the universe – why is humanity on earth, why do we die, why do certain life events happen, etc. Science on the other hand was based on answering the ‘how?’ questions – how has humanity lived on earth, how do we die, how do things happen. While science can hypothesizes and examines methods, religion looks at causes. In my view, this allows even a topic as controversial as evolution to be accepted by the religious. Evolution is a scientific theory of the process by which new species come to be. But why is evolution works or developed in the first place is a question for religion to analyze. I find myself asking – what if God created evolution and sat back to watch humanity emerge from the “ooze and amoebas?”

This week’s reading on the ‘Basic Problem’ embodied for me what this entire class is about. I was prompted to think of and make connections to materials from other classes I have taken. I myself was making a connection between science and society. Ironically, this was only possible after the Basic Problem was clearly defined – I do not think I would recognized the connection to Hobbes’s philosophy. I am also reconsidering the importance of the shift of power to individuals. Before this week’s reading, I considered the increasing ability of individuals to use science and technology in malicious ways to be a small side-effect of the Basic Problem, and incomparable to society’s careless push for ever faster innovation. Now, I realize that the increasing power of individuals to do harm is possibly the greatest risk in the Basic Problem.


The Basic Problem, revisited

Week 4’s readings take exploring the ‘Basic Problem’ into new depths.  These readings are markedly different from Freeman Dyson’s “The Darwinian Interlude” and Michio Kaku’s “Visions: How science will revolutionize the 21st century,” in that they are much more pessimistic. Where Dyson and Kaku predict a bright future in which children will play with biotech games, gardeners will use gene transfer on their plants[1], and genetic diseases will be eliminated.[2] Moreover, while Prof. Chaloupka’s writing defines and examines the possible risks of the ‘Basic Problem,’ it seemed that his analysis was one of a kind. Bill Joy’s article, however, is evidence that understanding of the ‘Basic Problem’ is spreading to other prominent scientists. Joy’s writing strikes a balance between the blind optimism of Dyson and Kaku on the one hand, and the stark realism of Chaloupka on the other. While by no means naïve about the risks of scientific progress, Joy also expresses his belief in humanity’s “great capacity for caring”[3] and his hope that “discussion of these issues… with people from many different backgrounds, in settings not predisposed to fear or favor [of] technology”[4] will prevent catastrophes.

I would like to examine Bill Joy’s article in conjunction with the ‘Basic Problem’ as defined in class. In doing so, I hope to explain how these four weeks have changed my understanding of biology and physics.

Joy begins by examining the possibility of sentient robots becoming mainstream technology. Using the dystopian vision of the Unabomber, Kaczynski, as an example, Joy ponders the causes of unintended consequences to technology. The answer seems clear – due to the complexity of technology, an changes may “cascade in ways that are difficult to predict,… especially [when] human actions are involved.”[5] I agree with joy that changes of technology may cause unpredictable outcomes due to the nature of the humans using it, but I disagree with his choice of example. To start with, I do not agree with Joy’s conviction that sentient robots are feasible in the near future. Intelligent machines have been predicted to be on the horizon of science for decades. Evidence of this is the predictions of robotic servants in the World Fairs of the early 1900s and the Jetson’s cartoons of the 1960s. None of these predictions, however, have been true. Indeed, it is 14 years since Bill Joy’s article was published and still sentient robots remain the expensive feats of engineering labs, not part of mainstream life. Regardless of whether sentient robots are possible or not, I think Joy’s argument would have been stronger if he had focused on the unintended consequences that small changes in technology can have. For example, the invention of the radio and television, the move from corded to wireless telephones, and the invention of contact lenses have also made significant impacts on society. Radio and television started the communications revolutions. They have also led to unintended consequences such as making sedentary lifestyles more common and leading to a spike in obesity. These consequences are smaller in magnitude and less dramatic than humanity’s incapability to make decisions without machines. But these smaller unintended consequences are more realistic, and would thus strengthen Joy’s argument.

Our class’ exploration of the ‘Basic Problem’ has changed the way I understand my biology and physics classes. After reading Prof. Chaloupka’s and Bill Joy’s writings, I now ask myself how new technologies might be used and the implications for society. This week, for example, I learned about a novel gene pyro-sequencing technique allowing for greater precision in the analysis of penguin GI microbiota. Before taking 216, I would have found this new technology interesting, but focused on understanding only how it works. Now, I also ask myself: does this technique have potential commercial uses? Would it be dangerous in the wrong hands? What will it allow biologists to do, that they have not yet thought of applying this technology to? Similarly, I have realized that the involvement of physicists in the Manhattan Project was never discussed in my year of physics classes at the UW. My classes focused instead on the mathematics behind basic physics phenomena and the solving of problems. While physics classes have, of course, only a limited time to teach students to analyze and solve physics problems, even spending one minute on the Manhattan Project and other real world applications of physics would have improved my understanding. Indeed, it is alarming that prior to this course in my 4th year of university I have not been exposed to these issues in my courses. The material taught in JSIS 216 should become part of regular curriculum in schools. Increasing awareness and understanding of the Basic Problem is the first, and most important, step in preventing disasters in the future.


[1] Freeman Dyson, “The Darwinian Interlude,” Technology Review (2005), 27.

[2] Michio Kaku, “Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century.”

[3] Bill Joy, “Why the future doesn’t need us,” Wired 8.04 (2000), 16.

[4] Ibid, 16.

[5] Ibid., 2.

Caution, Culture, and Race for Progress

Having been introduced in Weeks 1 & 2 of the course, the Basic Problem of scientific progress and its ironic propensity to increase risks while at the same time healing societal problems, is the focus of this post. To reiterate for readers, the Basic Problem as defined by Prof. Chaloupka both in class and in transcripts of speeches given in Bristol and Vienna is as follows:

“In our understanding of nature (science), and in the application of that understanding (technology), we are acquiring powers that will soon become truly god-like…. However, our ability to use this power wisely has not increased correspondingly. For the first time in human history, the capability of causing extreme harm is, or will soon be, in the hands of individuals or small groups. This is the ‘Basic Problem’.”[i]

As a class, we have seen how Richard Feynman dealt with the dilemma of the Basic Problem himself. A participant in the Manhattan project, [ii]he found himself asking the same questions that we, as a class, continue to examine today.

This leads me to the topic of this post: the relation between innovation and progress in science and the resulting inherent increase in risk to humanity. Specifically, I would like to consider selected readings from Weeks 3&4 on the Ukraine Crisis’ possible impact on nuclear non-proliferation and on Global Warming’s role today. I began thinking about the relation between the two during Week 3’s quiz section, to which both physics and social science students contributed.

The Ukraine Crisis

Current events in what has become known as the ‘Ukraine Crisis’ have been dominating headlines for almost a full month. They remind the world of a time when Russia and the West were on less than stellar terms – a time of fear, especially for western countries bordering the Iron Curtain. The Ukraine Crisis does not, however, lead immediately to consideration of its effects on global nuclear non-proliferation (or, at least this is the case for myself).  Finding the link between the two was set as a challenge by Prof. Chaloupka – and led to the learning of some very interesting learning.

At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine had the 3rd largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Much of the USSR’s nuclear weaponry had some element of production in the Ukraine. This information was most definitely new to me. I knew, of course, of the famed Chernobyl disaster. My parents themselves have stories of Chernobyl, and how it was covered by Bulgarian media at the time. My aunt visited Ukraine on a business trip not far from Chernobyl just one week after the accident. She recalls a group tour of a zoo, where many of the animals appeared weak and sick – the tour guides did not, of course, talk about Chernobyl. Less than a year later, she had a benign tumor removed from her thyroid. Yet Chernobyl was just one of many nuclear projects in Ukraine.

On December 5, 1994, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assistance. This agreement, which was also signed by the US and UK, stipulated security assurances against threats to territorial integrity or force against Ukraine. The Memorandum was spurred by Ukraine’s joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. As a condition of the Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal to Russia. The nuclear weapons it had stockpiled were sent to Russia by 1996, and Ukraine was declared nuke-free.

How does this relate to the Basic Problem? It is a direct example of how “our ability to use [great] power wisely has not increased corresponding” to scientific advancements. The Ukraine Crisis, in particular, brings with it the spectre of MAD. If large, powerful nations such as Russia do not hold to their assurances on nuclear power and agreements such as the Budapest Memorandum lose validity, then what alternatives are available as preventative measures to nuclear war and devastation?

The most obvious answer to come to mind is the reinstallation of Cold War era MAD policies. If other countries considering signing the Treaty on Non-Proliferation believe that doing so will risk their territorial integrities, then they will be far less willing to join. If agreements such as the Budapest Memorandum are disregarded by larger countries, they are no longer of any political value. In such a scenario, it seems logical that small countries will not only refuse to join the Treaty on Non-Proliferation, believing that the ability to threaten nuclear retaliation may discourage large powers from breaching their sovereignty. Countries such as Iran and North Korea are particularly likely to use the Ukraine Crisis as justification for intensifying their nuclear programs.

On MAD & Global Warming

MAD policies are, by definition, based on fear tactics. As long as all actors in MAD are equally deterred by the possibility of nuclear retaliation to their actions, then nobody should step out of line.

It is interesting, then, to compare the fear tactics of MAD and the Global Warming movement.

As documented in the NY Times article “Global Warming Scare Tactics” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, fear-based tactics have been used in attempts to raise public concern about climate change. Such tactics include linking the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters to human-caused climate change. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, also used this method. Strangely, however, the number of Americans believing that global warming has been exaggerated the media has increased since 2006 – from 34% to 42%.

Why should fear tactics work in MAD then, if they are falling short for climate change? The answer lies in the immediacy perceived about each.

MAD is a construct left over from the Cold War. In the USA, the adults of today remember being instructed to “duck and cover” in response to the flash of nuclear detonations. Photos and accounts of the human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki create immediate emotional responses. The public can, therefore, clearly visualize the potential risks of nuclear disaster and how they would affect everyday life. As a result, the public perceives the risks of MAD as realistic and possible.

By contrast, the effects of global warming are easy to envision for future generations, but much more difficult to envision within our own lifetimes. Despite being accelerated by human pollution, climate change is nevertheless an extremely slow process. The harmful consequences of our actions today will not come to be for generations. It is not our current society that will have to deal with the result of rising seas, intense storms, and changes in regional climates. It will be our grand- and great-grand children who will suffer the consequences of inaction today. There are no disastrous events concretely linked to climate change, so the public cannot visualize the consequences of global warming as it can for MAD. The result is that the public’s incentive for responding to fear-based global warming tactics is greatly reduced.


MAD and the global warming movement both use fear-based tactics in attempting to prevent nuclear warfare and further environmental destruction, respectively. The successes of MAD and the shortcomings of global warming each hold implications for the other.

MAD is in part useful because of the immediacy of the negative consequences if it fails to prevent nuclear warfare. It is maybe possible, then, for the global warming movement to increase its effectiveness in changing people’s behavior by finding new, more immediate ways to portray the consequences of climate change. Crucial to this will be clearly and definitively linking natural disasters and similar events to global warming. If the increasing frequency of extreme storms (ie. Hurricane Katrina) or rising water levels in Venice can be linked to climate change by basic science, skepticism about the problem should decrease.

Similarly, global warming’s failure to use fear-tactics for motivating change holds an important lesson for MAD supporters. Using catastrophic rhetoric may cause skepticism about the risks of nuclear conflict. If this happens, MAD loses much of its effectiveness as a preventative deterrent. It may be in society’s best interests to make a ‘back-up plan’ should MAD fail.

Concluding Thoughts

The readings, lectures, and discussions of Week 3&4 have made me think in more depth than ever before how science can both create problems of and solutions to Human Security issues. Scientific advancement is a double-edged sword. It is somewhat alarming that prior to this course in my 4th year of university I have not been exposed to these issues in my courses. The material taught in JSIS 216 should become part of regular curriculum in schools. Increasing awareness and understanding of the Basic Problem is the first, and most important, step in preventing disasters in the future.




[i] Vladimir Chaloupka, “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security: or What is To Be Done?” (2008).

[ii] Vladimir Chaloupka, Common Book 2011: UW and Meaning of It All Study and Teaching Guide,” (2011).

Science & the General Public

As the first two weeks of class have gotten me thinking about the role of science in society, I have begun paying significantly more attention to the reactions of my peers to science-related news and articles. Although my observations are limited in sample size and lack controls, as any respectable scientist would be quick to point out, I believe they still illustrate several of the phenomena we have discussed in class.

Amongst my peers, there seem to be three groups of  attitudes towards issues of science:

  1. Accepting, analytical, logical – this group consists mostly of fellow science majors (biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc).
  2. Interested, but apprehensive – this group consists mostly of social science majors who are intrigued by the workings of science and its implications for civilization, but who are often apprehensive of studying these issues due dislike of mathematics or memorization.
  3. Uninterested – this group shows little interest in science-related news articles, or shared knowledge from science major peers.

Within Group 1, there is also division according to the disciplines these students are most interested in. Biologists, for example, view the role of osmotic and partial pressure gradients across a cell membrane from a different perspective than physicists or chemists. While the biologist might focus on the dynamic equilibrium of ions and water resulting from such gradients, the physicist might examine the energy across the membrane and the chemist might examine in great detail the phospholipids and membrane proteins involved in ion transfer.

This is precisely the reductionist nature of science which Kaku examines in “Visions.” 20th century science, Kaku argues, was characterized by separating the disciplines and allowing scientists to specialize within them. One benefit of reductionism was, of course, the success in establishing the “foundation[s] of modern physics, chemistry, and biology.” Yet Kaku predicts that the time of reductionism is coming to an end: the obstacles facing scientists today can not be solved by such a segmented approach. As reductionism comes to an end, a new dynamic relationship between the scientific disciplines should emerge, leading to the acceleration of scientific discovery.

This prediction seems to be reflected in Group 1. These peers of mine are often split in their approaches to problems, according to their subject of focus. Yet, university coursework is increasingly emphasizing the interconnectedness between the disciplines. And often biology students will go to a physics major friend for help with a homework assignment. It seems that Kaku may have been accurate in his prediction – and that we are currently witnessing the transition between scientific reductionism and synergy.

Group 2 is also quite interesting to examine. My peers in this group, some of whom are enrolled in JSIS 216 with me, are interested in improving the human condition. They are, therefore, often interested in how scientific advancements can be applied to real world problems and express interest in understanding the nuances of science in more detail. Discomfort with mathematics and memorization often prevents these students from venturing into the hard sciences.

Prof. Chaloupka presents a potential solution to this problem, in his talk on “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security.” The first solution he offers to the Basic Problem – that for the first time in history, the capability of causing extreme harm is in the hands of individuals or small groups – is education. Importantly, Chaloupka recognizes that this is not a case of educating just the general public about science. Education must go in both directions – scientists must also be taught about the need for social responsibility and foresight.

Group 3 in particular has much to gain from education about science. This does not mean that members of the general public who are genuinely disinterested in issues of science and human security are to be forced to endure lectures on calculus and biochemistry. Rather, education for this group should probably focus on explaining the potential impact scientific discoveries have on society – and the inherent risks for the future.

It seems to me to be logical, therefore, that just as Kaku’s prediction of synergy between scientific disciplines comes to fruition, society in general must go through a similar metamorphosis. In the same way biologists, physicists, and chemists will work together, the general public should work with the scientific community to regulate discoveries, prevent their misuse, and promote their use for improving the human condition.



Today, I completed the first Short Response Paper of the term. While this is mandatory of everyone in the class, and therefore doesn’t count towards this Ad-Hoc Honors project, I’m uploading it because I believe that it will be helpful to my readers as they read my first in-depth.

So, without further ado, here it is!

Two of the assigned readings this week were Prof. Michio Kaku’s “Visions: How science will revolutionize the 21st century” and the transcript Prof. Chaloupka’s speech on “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security: or What is To Be Done?” Both authors present their interpretations on the consequences science will have on the future of humanity, yet they have fundamental – and thus importantly – distinctions. I would like to examine these distinctions, as they are significant to our understanding of how science impacts progress and the field of Human Security. In addition, I will highlight certain contentions in both Kaku’s and Chaloupka’s articles that I disagree with. In all cases, my disagreement stems from my exposure to differing views in other courses. I will attempt to explain why I find these views more probable than those of Kaku and Chaloupka, using my academic and personal background as a framework.

In “Visions,” Kaku advances the thesis that the era of scientific discovery is ending, as advances in technology allow us to mature from passive observers unravelling the secrets of Nature to masters of Nature. Kaku begins by examining the three scientific revolutions of the 20th century: the quantum, computer, and DNA revolutions. The discoveries and knowledge gained from each of these, Kaku argues, is central to our debut into the “Age of Mastery.” The computer revolution gives us the skills to create artificial intelligence. The DNA revolution will give us “nearly god-like ability[ies] to manipulate life almost at will.” The quantum revolution has and continues to contribute to advancement in the other two revolutions, in addition to providing us with deeper insight into the physics of the universe.

Kaku’s predictions are intriguing. I find his predictions of artificial intelligence or a shift from wealth from natural resources to wealth from knowledge and skill entirely possible and believable. I do, however, believe that Kaku takes his predictions too far in some cases For example, he states by 2020 cheap microprocessors will allow us to place intelligent systems everywhere. This is all well and good – but he fails to acknowledge that this depends on the percentage of people having access to the technology, their education about its use and consequences, and the cultural acceptance of intelligent systems everywhere in life. Education and cultural acceptance require time, and they are important for the adoption of any new technology. Another premature prediction of Kaku’s is that “many genetic diseases will be eliminated by injecting people’s cells with the correct gene.” As a biology major, I am admittedly quick to disagree with this statement. I think, however, that even a non-biology major would understand that Kaku’s prediction is only feasible if the injection of genes is done early in the development and differentiation of an embryo. In adults, gene therapy would need to reach all target cells. This is a huge obstacle – injecting a correct gene into every single target cell is a strategic nightmare, and one that is the focus of much current research.

Prof. Chaloupka’s speech on “Science, the Basic Problem, and Human Security” is similar to Kaku’s chapter, in that it looks to the future impacts of science on society. It has, however, a crucial distinction. While Chaloupka agrees with Kaku that we are acquiring god-like powers, he goes further to recognize the possible negative outcomes of scientific progress. Where Kaku is singularly optimistic, Chaloupka also examines the costs of science. This is, in my opinion, very important. If we are blindly optimistic, we risk being caught unprepared if the relationship between science and society does go wrong. This is the Basic Problem of foresight that Chaloupka outlines. While Kaku sees increasing access to scientific discoveries as leading to the dissemination of intelligent systems around the world, Chaloupka is correct in pointing out how such access can lead to individuals or small groups being capable of causing serious harm. His reasoning that reactions to catastrophes will probably not be rational also seems reasonable – in fact, it is all the more believable for Chaloupka’s use of past examples like the public response to 9/11.

By taking the leap and acknowledging the potential downsides of scientific advancement, Prof. Chaloupka ultimately does something very important that Kaku does not: making possible the consideration of defensive, preventative, and reactionary measures to minimize the risks of science as much as possible. It is counter-intuitive and, in my opinion, somewhat ironic that only by acknowledging the potential risks and detriments of scientific advancement can we hope to prevent and mitigate them. And the difference between Chaloupka’s and Kaku’s conclusions is itself reminiscent of a scientific discovery for the good.