The fruits of scientific advancement are all around us, from smartphones to electric toothbrushes to Roombas. But nearly half of the people we surveyed said science doesn't make much of a difference in their everyday lives. Our guests discuss just how much of an impact science has had throughout history, and how scientific advancement will shape the future.
David Wees is the Mathematics Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools. He is helping create frameworks for teachers that will help cultivate a lifelong love of learning about mathematics for students of all ages. David is also a keynote speaker, and holds workshops on teaching and learning in the digital age.
Jayshree Seth: Only 46% of people say science is very important in their everyday lives. But 63% say it is very important to society in general. How can we make the average person more aware of science’s human, personal impact? We’ll dig into the issue on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to episode 6 of Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
On this episode, we’re talking about the human impact of science. When I say the word “scientist,” what mental image comes to mind? You probably pictured someone in a white lab coat and gloves, mixing different-colored chemicals in beakers — messy “Albert Einstein” style hair optional.
For many of us, science is only about what happens in that imaginary lab. People don’t appreciate that scientific innovation drives the smartphone in their pocket, the pill that lowers their cholesterol, or the airplane flying overhead. As science educators and enthusiasts, it’s our job to help them make that connection.
My guests this week are both experts in science education and communication. First up is Alok Jha. Alok, please tell us about your work.
Alok Jha: I'm Alok Jha. I'm a science journalist based in the UK. At the moment, I am a public engagement fellow with the Wellcome Trust trying to look at how we might improve reporting on science.
Jayshree Seth: Thanks, Alok. Our second guest is David Wees. David, please tell me a little about what you do.
David Wees: My name is David Wees, and I am a mathematics educator. My role right now is actually as a consultant. I work primarily for a non-profit organization based in New York called New Visions for public schools. And I write curriculum resources, and I run workshops, for math teachers. That’s where my passion has been for the last few years, in teaching and learning. It’s really exciting to be able to work with teachers across New York City, improving their teaching and improving the learning conditions for students in their classrooms.
Jayshree Seth: Thanks, David. Let’s start right down at the personal level. How does science affect you and your family’s day-to-day lives?
David Wees: Just this morning, my son was walking around the living room in a strange way, looking at his shadow while he was doing it. He said, “Daddy, my shadow always points in the same direction.” I could see that he was walking around the room and observing his shadow and noticing the direction that it goes. I said, “Oh, that’s really interesting, what if we try it with this other light?” And I turned on a different light in the room. He walked over to the other light, and he did the same experiment. He said, “Yeah, it still works, but now it’s a different direction.
So this is two things: The first is the process of observing the world to see what actually happens and paying attention to the phenomenon in front of us, having a theory about it (my shadow always points in the same direction), and then being able to test your theory and verify that it works. Well, actually, the goal being finding evidence it doesn’t work, right? Because if you have a theory and you can find no evidence that it doesn’t work, the theory is probably true. Both my children do this. My other son, when he was the same age, actually, about 5 years old. He was walking around the living room, and he would throw a ball in the air and continue walking and catch the ball right in his hand. And he said, “Daddy, I’ve noticed this ball always lands in my hand. It doesn’t go behind me; it doesn’t go in front of me. If I throw it straight up, it goes in my hand, even when I’m moving. So again, he has a theory about what the ball does, and he’s testing it. That’s a critical part of his development. So it’s really fascinating to see my children grow up, and to know and understand scientific reasoning as part of their lives. It’s really fun.
Jayshree Seth: I do love how children have that natural curiosity that makes for a good scientist. Alok, how about you?
Alok Jha: I think science is an invisible force that affects me, my family, my friends, everybody. It runs our cities. It makes us healthy. It ensures that we have enough food to eat. All these things are happening without anyone really noticing.
We don't see the products of science because we don't see them that way, but if you look under the surface of absolutely anything around you, you'll see there is a scientific angle to it. In terms of how it got there or why you've got that particular laptop everywhere, that one. You know it's really impossible to say how it affects your life because it's kind of like a layer in your life that covers every single aspect.
So, I as a science journalist see it all the time. I just look around and think, how and why this city more polluted than that one? How come this drug is better than that one? That's my job. I'm not sure that most of my family and friends look at it that way.
Jayshree Seth: Now let’s go a little broader: How do each of you see science affecting future generations?
Alok Jha: Future generations will be affected by science and scientific thinking in the same way that humans have been affected so far, which is that it will make your life better, easier, more comfortable and you'll live longer. You know science is something that's a way of thinking. It has improved the world in immeasurable ways. Although scientists will probably say, you can measure those ways. But anyway, I’m gonna stick with my metaphor.
It's going to affect the future in huge ways, and whether that's the rise of things like artificial intelligence which makes our technology and the way we interact with the world more seamless, whether it's the introduction of technologies that we hope will tackle climate change. These are all things that will make the world better.
Of course, you can't ignore the fact that the results of science have sometimes dual purposes, whether that's military or carbon technologies that end up depleting the earth. You have to think about all those things too. But actually, on the balance of probabilities, it will affect the future in a good way because the only way to get out of problems is to think about them scientifically.
David Wees: It’s clear that more than a lot of other things, science has really helped improve people’s lives over the past 4-500 years. We have dramatically better living conditions worldwide than we used to. And a lot of those improvements in living conditions are due to technologies that were developed as the result of learning scientific principles about the world: vaccinations, better advances in medical technology so infant mortality rate is low, better advances in health so health is better, etc.
Our problem is that that’s not yet evenly distributed. There are all sorts of inequity issues that exist still. One hopes that over time we will learn how to develop better policies so that those inequity issues are reduced. I think this is an area of our world where we don’t apply scientific principles as much as we should, especially in developing public policy and in politics. So we might have agreed-upon goals, such as “we don’t want anyone to go hungry.” That’s a good goal. And we have very different theories about how to achieve that goal. And right now, basically whoever’s in charge uses their theories. But neither side, I think, or any sides - I don’t know if there are sides - really takes the time to deliberately test out whether their theory is true and then look for evidence that it doesn’t work, and try to figure out how to adjust the theory.
That’s what public policy is, it’s a theory about how to achieve some goal. How do we adjust our public policy, our theory, so we can actually achieve the goals we’re trying to get? It’s fascinating to me to see that “the world exists like this, so therefore my theory works, and darned be the evidence that it doesn’t work.” It would be very nice if, instead, people said, “I have theory about the world, it’s expressed in this policy, and now we can see if the theory’s either true or not true, and if we have to adjust the policy.” And the means don’t always justify the ends, so you have to be careful that whatever theory or public policy you have, that in fact that process itself is meeting some other goals you might have for society.
Jayshree Seth: That’s an interesting idea, applying scientific principles to the public sector. Now, David, you’re an educator, and Alok, you’re a journalist. But I feel like you’re working toward similar goals. How do you feel your work will help inspire the next generation to appreciate science?
David Wees: This is, I think, a fairly complex question, so my answer hopefully will make sense. I work in math education to help kids have better experiences in math class so that they not only learn the math but they want to do math. They have a productive disposition towards math and knowledge of math. So they’re both interested in math and want to go further with it. And that's a critical part of people deciding to choose scientific careers or any career that involves mathematics.
So our work and inspiration is to try to improve the teaching methods that are used so children are not only learning mathematics, but they’re meeting this other goal of wanting to do math.
I work for this organization, New Visions for Public Schools, we’re developing a work based on a theory of action developed by Magdala Lampert. She noticed that excellent teachers have typical structures and routines they use in order to maintain their class. And that those routines are not always taught to the next generation of teachers.
An analogy might help here: Imagine that teaching a classroom is kind of like being an actor in a play. And writing a lesson to use in our classroom is kind of like writing a play. So right now, in most places, teachers are writing plays in the evening which they then use and enact with their children during the day. And that’s, I think, unsustainable. And it’s kind of worse because in a lot of cases, those teachers are writing plays — at least when you’re writing a real play, you have genres, you can say, “Oh, I want to make a comedy, or a tragedy, or this is a hero’s journey.” Whereas for teachers, quite often the only genre they have to fall back on is how they were taught.
So we’re developing this set of instructional routines that form a genre, a way of teaching. We’re going to launch, we’re going to attack a problem and then unpack that problem as a group, and make sure during that unpacking everyone understands what was talked about and how it works. And then we’re going to reflect on our thinking and figure out what’s our key takeaway? What are we going to use? That’s a storyline for a lesson. And all of the instructional routines we use follow that basic storyline, with some adaptation and modification. Some of them have application built in so kids can practice, etc.
So we want to build these instruction routines. Then we also want to have some tasks, some suggestions on how to actually use those resources set up and ready to go. Not scripted lesson plans so that teachers are thoughtless, not having to think about what they’re doing, but to take some of the thinking that exists that is already built into other professions, like being a playwright, etc., and extend that reasoning to, “what are the structures and supports we can apply to teaching and learning so the students are more likely to learn the mathematics and feel good about learning the mathematics, and feel like, “I want to learn math, I want to do more than this, I want to make this my life.” So I think that speaks to inspiration. Anyway, that’s the goal.
Alok Jha: As a journalist; my job is to find interesting stories among scientists and to tell the rest of the world. Because I find stories about science fascinating and so do people and rest of the world actually. So, that have been a great pleasure.
At the moment, I am taking a break from that frontline news reporting to think a bit more deeply about my own profession, about how science journals operated, how it might improve the way we tell stories about science because we may become very good in science journals at explaining science to the world and getting people interested in the wow and wonder and the magic of science. I say magic in a very sort of metaphorical way. We've done really well but what I suppose we need to get better at is getting non-scientists to appreciate their thought processes that go on behind science.
So, science is not only about collecting information or fact. It's about reducing uncertainty which is something that people who are not scientists don't really appreciate. It's not about certainty at all. It's not about making sure one thing is an absolute fact. It's about understanding the world and reducing the doubts. So, my job this year is to try and work out how science relates to journalism and reflect that. There are shades of grey and there's sort of uncertainties in science. I think that that will be a benefit to people to understand that so that you know the rest of us can get a bit closer to what science is, to get a greater understanding of what it means, and you're told a scientific fact. You can be empowered to understand these things more meaningfully yourself.
Jayshree Seth: That makes sense. So, as you saw in our survey data, many people don’t think their lives would be different without science. Imagine they’re right — everything science has done for the human race is gone. Just how different would our lives really be?
Alok Jha: It's really hard to imagine a world without science because we're so infused with it right now in the 21st century. Someone who's followed science all his career, it's almost impossible to think about it. Having said that, there was a time before people thought like this is what I thought scientifically.
You can go back to medieval times or you can go back to times people didn't think scientifically. Science hadn't been invented, if that's a word you can use. People lived very simple lives. People lived and died depending on seasons. I mean you couldn't plan agriculture without science. You can't create technology without science and the world existed for tens of thousands of years like that. But once we discovered how to think rationally and think scientifically, the humans took off in a completely different direction. So, without science I think we would still be hunter gatherers living on the savannas somewhere, chasing food and there would be many other essential differences.
Jayshree Seth: Absolutely. David, what do you think?
David Wees: I don’t know if this is quite the same as imagining a world, but we as a species did live in a world without science. So if we go back prior to people using, at a wide scale, any sort of scientific thinking in their lives, that was the Dark Ages. Health outcomes were terrible. People were afraid of ghosts and superstition was rampant. It was in a lot of ways — at least from what I’ve read — a pretty difficult time to be alive. You had to have lots of kids to make sure you had some of them live to grown up, so people had big families. And you were sort of, “I’m going to get to 40, if I’m lucky.” That doesn’t feel like a world I would want to go back to.
I think there would be some really dramatic differences in our world that we take for granted now, I think. Chief among them being our life expectancy and access to resources, and even just time spent working.
Right now, I have so much free time available as a person to do and spend with my family, that’s a result of a lot of work that used to have to be done being accomplished by machines. And those machines were developed through scientific reasoning. You and I could not have this conversation, couldn’t talk to each other at a distance, without the science we’ve developed. So I think our lives would be radically different. And if we want to see what those lives would look like, we just have to go back to our own experiences as a species before science was developed.
Jayshree Seth: I think I’ll stay in the 21st century, thanks very much! Now, these next questions are subjective, I know, so there are no wrong answers: What do you think is the most important scientific discovery or claim made in your lifetime?
Alok Jha: I'm not trying to avoid this question, but I think it's very difficult to say what kinds of scientific discoveries are the most important because if you look in the history of science, the most important discoveries don't seem important at the time. It takes many decades to someone to realize something's important; many years. So, prediction is a very very difficult thing to do about that sort of thing.
Having said that, lots of interesting things have happened in the last few years that I think could have potential to be very important. I don't know which is gonna be the most important. The ability to edit your genes, it's CRISPR which is a technology that allows scientists to edit genes the very precise way, allows changes to the genomes and genetic code of any living organism. I mean that's incredible. Things that enable and allow us to do whether it's genetically modifying crops, removing diseases that have so far been beyond the realms of medical science, understanding how genes work and all of this stuff can be incredibly important to the next century. I think that that's going to be incredibly important discovery.
Personally, discovering gravitational waves last year was supremely important. Because it tells us something about our universe. Albert Einstein as a physicist, as a formal Physicist myself I find that fascinating, that it took a hundred years for us to develop the technology to be able to prove that Einstein was once again right. So, I think those two things are particularly interesting, but I'm not going to say which one's more important.
David Wees: I’m going to cheat a little bit, because I actually think the most important scientific discovery predates me a little bit, and that’s the science around climate change. I was doing a little bit of reading, and it turns out this was starting to be studied around the beginning of the 19th century, but it really grew in earnest in the 1960s, and then some major discoveries were made in the 70s, and so it’s kind of when I was born, but really it sort of happened before me. And it’s critical, because it impacts literally every living being on this planet, were impacted by this discovery. And as a species, the evidence is clear that we’re having a major impact on the global ecosystem, on the global client, and that that science hopefully gets acted on. But that science is super critical to everyone’s lives. If we are to avoid a mass extinction, or major major shifts in lifestyle for everybody, plants and animals included, then that continued research and really paying attention to whether policy changes that are made actually make an impact, that’s going to be critical. I encourage everybody who is passionate about the world to get into climate science and learn more about it. Even if you’re a little bit skeptical, I think that’s great: We need some skeptics. We need people who are gonna really carefully check to make sure that our changes in policy and changes in how we act make a difference, enough of a difference that we don’t end up with a complete disaster. So that’s a really critical scientific discovery, in my mind.
Jayshree Seth: And what scientific advancement in the past decade will have the greatest impact on our lives, but is something that most people aren’t aware of, or don’t think about?
Alok Jha: I think almost every part of your life is touched by science or scientific research in some way, whether it's health or technology or whatever else. I think the things that have most impacted individuals is going to be different for everybody. If I think about it, one of the most important things that perhaps the whole of humanity is benefited from is evidence-based medicine. The idea that with the fact that we're living longer is because we've done a really good job in the last half century from understanding how our bodies work and what interventions make them work better or stop disease.
Having said that, we're in the beginning of that. So, we're going to get much better at that. There's lots of uncertainties at the moment. I think that's been incredibly important in terms of making people literally live longer.
But there are lots of other things that impact people. The internet, telecommunications, fiber optics, those sorts of things which we don't even think about which allow us to communicate around the world in seconds. Can you tell me which one's more important? I couldn't decide.
David Wees: I learned about the discovery of something called “teixobactin,” which is a new antibiotic. It’s really interesting because it acts in a very different way than the other antibiotics we have. In particular, it’s super effective against the superbugs that are plaguing hospitals across the world I don’t know if everybody knows, but for a long time there have been strains of bacteria that are resistant to penicillin and resistant to other antibiotics we have. And they've developed that resistance because of evolution, right? They’ve changed in response to the antibiotics.
This antibiotic, teixobactin, is going to transform that. Because it acts on the bacteria in a way that it would be really hard for them to evolve differently to avoid. So they’re expecting it will be a knockout killer for a lot of the superbugs. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t work for everything. So there will still be some bacteria that will require our standard antibiotics. So that was really fascinating to me. I don't know if everybody thinks about this impact, but I’ll bet you that people who have actually had a bad staph infection, like, “Oh, this is really awful, why can’t you cure this?” It’s fascinating to me that those people probably did some research, just like I did, and found out about this antibiotic, and were like, “can I use this stuff?” I think it is less well-known because as far as I can tell, it’s not yet being used. It came out in 2014, so that speaks to the delay between scientific discovery being found, and then the direct application or the technology that uses that scientific discovery. I think that delay makes sense because, one, just because somebody has a theory about how something works, it doesn't mean that’s true. So before we go out and mass-produce that antibiotic and use it on people — who knows, maybe it’s got side effects that are just terrible? Or maybe it doesn’t do the work; the research was in error. So the delay between something being discovered and being researched is really critical.
Jayshree Seth: Absolutely.
David Wees: There are some really big discoveries that I can’t see how they are going to impact our world, but — so, like, the discovery of planets in the last ten years that are very likely to have all the conditions our planet has that allows us to have life on this planet, that’s really cool. The discovery of gravity waves, so we have another way of literally listening to the universe, that’s fascinating.
And then there’s some new technologies: clearly, driverless cars and advances in artificial intelligences will have really dramatic changes on our world. Driverless cars, actually, I suspect that my 5-year-old will not get a driver’s license. I mean, maybe it will be different. But it won’t be — it’s possible it won’t be a license where he’s actually physically moving the car himself. And that’s different, and will be the first generation in a long time (like the 1910s) that might not be driving cars themselves. Fascinating, right?
And it’s also got a serious social problem. This is an issue that we haven't resolved as a species, which is we introduce a technology, and it solves some social problems but it also creates some. So if we have driverless trucks going down the highway, that probably means the highways are safer. It’s my understanding that most of these driverless vehicles are safer than humans.
But there are 3 million truck drivers in the United States who will suddenly be out of work, because the cost of a driverless truck is almost certain to be, within a couple of years, much cheaper than paying for a driver to drive things around. What happens when 3 million people go out of work within a year of each other? That’s going to have a dramatic social impact. And we’ve really not figured out how to handle that as a society.
Jayshree Seth: Absolutely - though given how I felt when my daughter got her license, I feel pretty good about driverless cars.
David, Alok, thank you so much for sharing your time and your thoughts with me today.
Science makes an impact on our daily lives in two equally important ways. First, scientific advancement adds to humankind’s shared body of knowledge. The better we understand our bodies, our planet, and our universe, the more we can work to improve people’s lives today and in the future. Second, scientific innovation leads to technological advancement — more effective medicines, faster computers, safer travel, more energy-efficient power plants, and hundreds of other practical, tangible applications.
How can you be more aware of the impact science has on your life? Well, spending this half hour with me is a great way to start. If this episode piqued your curiosity, continue to explore: search the internet, visit your local library, and sample some science journalism, too.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.