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Lessons from the Universe

Lessons from the Universe

I teach at ISB, the biggest international school in Bangkok, and the kids here are keen enough to welcome a Nobel Prize laureate like they would a rock star. So when astrophysicist Brian Schmidt entered the school theatre last week, flanked with his clever-looking entourage, he must have felt the genuine warmth of the students’ welcome.


I was excited too. As a philosopher, I have always been drawn to astronomy, even though I can’t claim to understand its intricacies. The two disciplines have been closely linked since their infancy, and there is so much unknown out there, so much imagination still required in the study of astrophysics that it sometimes reminds me of metaphysics. Brian Schmidt himself highlighted the fact that all human cultures seem to have the same fascination for stars and the cosmos.


Science is a collective endeavour


Just like the kids, I was expecting to learn technical details about supernovae and dark energy. Superscientists are sometimes so wrapped up in their specialist areas that they have a hard time engaging young audiences, however clever and knowledge-thirsty those audiences are. But Schmidt is clearly a teacher too, and he had no trouble keeping the students’ attention for a full hour. He did share the story of some of his discoveries: Schmidt is one of the scientists who first hypothesised that most of the universe is made of dark energy, after discovering that the universe is accelerating as it expands, and not decelerating as previously thought.


He describes this discovery as “terrifying”: “It must be wrong”, he thought at the time. “This is crazy! I’ve discovered that 70% of the universe is anti-gravity?! That’s not something that you put on your homework and you expect to get full marks when you get your homework back”. As it turns out, this was the discovery that led him and two other astrophysicists to receiving the Physics Nobel Prize.


Schmidt didn’t dwell on his glory as a scientist, however, and his main message to our students was a remarkably humble one: science is, in essence, collaborative, and scientific progress can only happen if knowledge is fully shared. When Schmidt went to visit his old school a couple of years ago, some of his teachers were somewhat surprised that he should be the one who won a Nobel Prize. “I was a good student”, he confessed, “but I wasn’t the best student, I was just another student. [Teachers] said they remembered me because they remembered that I was very good at organizing people to do things. And that turns out to be very important about science, or anything. Science and humanity move forward, not because of individuals taking their own steps, but it’s about us walking forward together”. At no point did Schmidt take any personal credit for his work: again and again, he emphasized the importance of building scientific knowledge as a communal activity.


Schmidt gave us examples of how the scientific community – an expression I finally got to appreciate fully – shares knowledge. Of course, new tools have made this much easier, and much more powerful. “The good news is”, he explained, “thanks to the world wide web, every image [of the universe] we take now is on the web (…) When we find something, we’ll post it to all the other astronomers (…) The beautiful thing of science is, we share our information, so I can literally look up every object on the Internet now, every position in the sky (…) and I can see if there’s something new or interesting.”


The Resilience Project


This made me wonder whether waiting to publish findings in scientific journals after a long editing process is becoming an obsolete method of sharing scientific knowledge. Stephen Friend is another great example, in the medical field, this time: the researcher is conducting a huge study of individuals who never developed the diseases they are carrying the genes for. His “Resilience Project” requires enormous amounts of data: his target is to study one million individuals all over the world.


As he explains, this type of study would have been extremely difficult and costly just a few years ago. In the past five years, not only have new tools appeared that allow data analysis to be much faster and simpler, but the sharing of data has also become more commonplace. Interestingly, technology seems to be generating – and therefore preceding – a real shift in the culture of the scientific community. Friend remembers: “as we went around talking to researchers and institutions and telling them about our story, something happened. They started saying, "This is interesting. I would be glad to join your effort. I would be willing to participate." And they didn't say, "Where's the MTA?" They didn't say, "Where is my authorship?" They didn't say, "Is this data going to be mine? Am I going to own it?" They basically said, "Let's work on this in an open, crowd-sourced, team way to do this decoding." As a result of the scientific community’s willingness to share information, Friend and his team have already collected well over half a million samples.


Our job as educators is to foster such a collaborative culture in our students. The truth is, however, I have never found it much of a challenge. The kids are way ahead of us, because they have been pushed by technology all along. They’re impatient, too. Three years is an eternity to them, not just because they’re young, but also because they are used to everything going fast. When some of them become scientists, will they be willing to wait for months or years before their findings are published? Or will they go along and share them with a scientific community that looks increasingly like a dynamic social network, more concerned with actual progress than it is with authorship, plagiarism and personal fame?


Animals in the Universe


Brian Schmidt is discovering habitable planets at an incredible rate, and yet it is still this ability to collaborate he marvels at: “We, here, on earth, tiny little drops in the ocean, have been able, by working together, over the last several thousand years, to piece together our place in the universe. Think how profound that is: that we are insignificant yet by using the fact that we learn from each other, that every smart dot that humanity has had over the last several hundred years has been shared with every other human. It’s the fact that we are able to do that, that allows us to move forward.”


This goes much beyond the scientific community itself: perhaps it can help us understand what it means to be human. As we become better at accepting the fact that we are animals, we still cling on to the idea that there is something unique about our species. We’ve seen apes using tools – and no, not just for food – and display empathy, morality, and the promise of aesthetic understanding. Other animals communicate and collaborate too, sometimes to a remarkable extent. But what animal can claim to communicate new information with its entire species? If this level of collaboration and sharing of information makes us human, many philosophical and social implications will need to be explored. For instance, who is being left out of the various collaborative processes we undertake? And, while many lament the loss of “real” social interaction, are we actually, through faster, smarter collaboration and communication, becoming more human than ever?


Read more philosophical material:

> Notes from the underground

> Technology and nature: the nature of technology


Brian Schmidt at International School Bangkok

Full transcript of Stephen Friend’s TED Talk

Image by Jef Safi 

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