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The Age of Discovery - Is It Over?

 article about The Age of Discovery - Is It Over?
At the turn of the last century, the world was in an upheaval, socially and scientifically. Einsteins Theory of Relativity was just being introduced to not only the scientific community, but also to the world at large. Sigmund Freud was rocking the world with his views on psychiatry and society. The accomplishments of science were filling not only the factories of the Western world, but also the homes. People who, thirty years earlier were using candles were installing electric lights. The wash board was being replaced by the washing machine. Governments decided to start protecting children from laboring in dangerous jobs and put them in state funded schools.

And the world was talking. It was buzzing. And even if the common man didnt exactly understand Special Relativity, he was talking about it. Freuds ideas were not necessarily accepted wholesale by the public, but they were talking about it. These types of scientific works were hitting the headlines of newspapers and filling the pages of magazines. Not just scientific journals. Automobiles were filling roads that were once traveled by horses and wagons. There were scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, the social sciences and advances in manufacturing and business.

But it seems that as the century wore on, we became complacent. I think many decided that the science and research was simply over their heads, past their comprehension, so while they enjoyed the results of the advances that were made, they didnt bother with what was happening. They just worried about what they could afford and who had the best one. By the time of the first exploration of space, we were a culture who liked to look at the pretty pictures, watch men hop around on the moon, but not many asked the real questions - how? What will we get from this? Where are we going? Whats next? And now, whats next has been replaced with - how much will it cost?

Now there is talk about a manned mission to Mars. And over and over again, Ive heard people say - why arent we taking care of things here? Why should we want to go to Mars? Why waste the money? I cannot begin to enumerate the number of commercial products that were a direct result of the first journey into space. Ill mention one as an example. Teflon. I dont think there are many Westerners who dont have a Teflon coated pan in the cupboard. Its even being put in cleaning products now. Youll find it in every laboratory. How much has just this one result from the space program profited both science and industry, not to mention everyone tired of scraping eggs out of a pan? Ill give you two more examples: modern zippers and Velcro.

Sometimes, there is no obvious benefit to research. When physicists developed the MRI - magnetic resonance imaging - they had no idea that it would ultimately end up as one of the most useful diagnostic medical tools of the century. Quite often, research must be done for the simple reason that the question is there. Any applications we can glean from it is a huge bonus, no doubt, but science for the sake of discovery has its place in the world. When Mendel experimented with peas at the monastery at which he served, he wasnt out to uncover the secrets of genetics and inheritance of traits - but he did, and set in motion a science that has now culminated in the Genome Project.

I have found it remarkable that people, a stunningly large number of people, dont understand even the basics of DNA, statistics, chemistry, or even the social sciences. Juries must still be taught a short course on DNA comparison before a case can be fully presented, and there are still people who dont get the importance of the statistics involved. People dont understand how the medications they take work, they just take them. They dont know how the car works, they just put gas into it until it wont go any more.

And science is getting pretty arrogant too. There are journals that the guy off the street cant even get access to. They are filled with the results of research, mostly funded by our government, and we dont even get to hear about them. We get the newest diet craze in hours, but most research is buried under a mound of jargon that even the most willing of us will give up in minutes. But when science wants money for something and we cant see the possibilities for discovery, they dont understand when we ask - why?

Are we turning out lessor citizens these days? Are people just not interested in the advances of the human species? I think the popularity of The Learning Channel and the Discovery Channels, not to mention decades of Public Television, would debunk this claim. As a matter of fact, I, for one, would like more of it. I tire of watching the same shows on space, ancient Egypt, and lions. I want more. I think a lot of people want more. More in plain language. More that is not filled with jargon that even a graduate student would have trouble with. Just because I have a personal problem visualizing things in three dimensions, doesnt mean I want my world to be flat.

So when people say that we should take care of the problems here before going to Mars, I only wonder if perhaps the answer might not be there. When they say we need a cure to cancer, who is to say that it might not be there? There is a huge amount of research currently being done in preparation for a trip to Mars - closed water systems, hydroponics, solar energy, ion engines - many of which can help all of us down here if we were only privy to the results of that research. It will undoubtably trickle down to us. Well be able to grow strawberries in Alaska during the winter and cherries in Jamaica. Well be able to produce food for our entire family in a small home greenhouse. Well have closed water systems where we will use the same water over and over again, purifying it each time. And this is what will come from going to Mars, plus an unimaginable number of other advances that will benefit man. And then well want to push a little farther, and well start all over again.

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