Science and politics 1: Nobel physicist David Jonathan Gross, January 29, 2008

During the holidays in January, I had the chance to exchange a few words with Nobel physicist David Jonathan Gross during his visit to Cebu. One of his more striking observations was that the lifestyles in the West (the so-called developed world) were not sustainable in the light of the growing evidence that human activity is in the main responsible for global warming of recent years.
But what struck me more was his observation that politics often trumps science but that the major problems of the world could not but be solved through politics (broadly defined), ultimately.
The visit was not covered well in the press, national or 'provincial'. That's why I'm publishing here my feature which was published in Cebu Daily News Jan. 21.

Hard Science not enough to solve mankind's contemporary problems---Nobel physicist

In a country where hard science is usually trumped by political 'science', the lecture by David J. Gross, one of the Nobel laureates for physics in 2004, on “The Lessons of Science” at the University of San Carlos College of Architecture and Fine Arts (CAFA) Jan. 11 was not only appropriate but serendipitously helpful. The lecture was part of a series under the auspices of the “Bridges---Dialogues Toward a Culture of Peace” program of the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation headed by Dr. Uwe Morawetz.

We say appropriate and helpful because protagonists in two major developments in Cebu and environs--- the offshore oil exploration in the Ta?on Strait, and the proposed Cebu trans-axial highway--- are resorting to 'scientific' arguments to buttress their positions. At the national level, a debate is raging over the net environmental impacts of the widespread production and use of biofuels, and Filipinos are finding it difficult to sift through the so-called evidence and claims in regard to the Glorietta blast in October last year. In all these cases, preconceptions and political biases get in the way of objective evaluation of phenomena and the indentification of cause and effect.

But Dr. Gross himself accepts the limits of hard science and the need for politics in addressing mankind's most challenging contemporary problems, among them widespread hunger and the potentially catastrophic consequences of human-induced global warming. Far from being the stereotypical 'mad scientist' people tend to associate with genius, the well-groomed physicist looked more like the John Lithgow character in Third Rock from the Sun, often incredulous at the practices and beliefs of earthlings. The global character of these problems, he said, required internationalism and effective global government envisioned by Albert Einstein.

The Lessons of Science

The announced title of the lecture was “The Coming Revolutions in Fundamental Physics” but Dr. Gross thought that the time allotted would not do the subject justice. Also, he was unsure about the nature and interests of the audience. The core of the scientific method, 'discovered' about the same time USC was established over 400 years ago, according to Dr. Gross, is observation and experiment, and the only authority scientific ideas 'bow' to is agreement with nature itself, and not to “political power nor religious faith.” “All theories are provisional...(and are refined by continuing verification guaranteed) by 'making findings available to all.' The implications of the scientific method go beyond scientific research because a healthy scientific culture requires an open society. Science promotes tolerance and democracy because in scientific inquiry, all are considered equal, he said.

In his one-hour lecture, Dr. Gross briefly traced the development of science and emphasized how young its branches are: physics, 400 years; astrophysics/cosmology, 100; biology, 150.

Perils, predictions, and guarded optimism

The standing arsenals of nuclear weapons with the potential to end all life on earth within hours constitutes a continuing scandal, Dr. Gross said in response to a question on nuclear proliferation posed by this writer during a press conference shortly before the lecture. Checking the spread of nuclear weapons remained difficult if the superpowers held on to their stockpiles which, he said, were utterly useless. The physicist reiterated the nuclear threat in his lecture, where he warned that science can and has been used for both good and bad.

But the overwhelming theme of the lecture, however, was optimism over the future of mankind. Dr. Gross boldly predicted that in the next 100 to 1000 years, the human lifespan---which has doubled in the last two centuries--- would be ten times what it is now and that human life would spread to other areas in the universe. Closer to the present, he said, the behavioral sciences would achieve the status of 'real science' in the next 50-100 years.

It takes a Nobel-class physicist to re-inspire awe in what is already well accepted in the scientific community: that humans are puny creatures in one planet revolving around a sun which is one among a 100 billion in our galaxy, which is among 100 billion galaxies in the universe that is said to have started with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. What was behind the Big Bang? When and how did time begin? Dr. Gross would not hazard a guess as to when these questions would be answered. Science, after all, continues to leave us with “informed, intelligent ignorance,” “We' ve learned that all of our concepts are provisional...subject to continuing questioning, challenging...and improvement.”

A feather for San Carlos

Dr. Gross, together with David Politzer and Frank Wilczek, received the Nobel for Physics for his theory on the strong force, the nuclear force that binds quarks, the smallest buildiing blocks of matter, and that binds the nucleus of the atom. He was conferred the San Carlos Borromeo Award by Fr. Roderick Salazar in behalf of the University.

The 400 year-old USC was one of two venues outside Metro Manila (the other was Ateneo de Davao) chosen by the International Peace Foundation for its continuing Bridges lectures,which promotes international understanding, among others, through visits by Nobel laureates that share its vision. Prior to the recent series in the Philippines, all of the lectures were held in Thailand. When USC president Fr. Roderick Salazar was first contacted by Dr. Morawetz, elation readily gave way to organization. It was Fr. Rod who chose Dr. Gross from the foundation's roster. It is not well known that science, physics and chemistry in particular, is a flagship program of USC. The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) has in fact recognized USC as a center of excellence in chemistry. Fr. Rod told me that preparations for the lecture begun early last year and that the university was asked to shoulder the business class tickets of Dr. Gross and company. The exposure of Cebu academia to Nobel-class high theory, and not just the prestige for USC, was well worth the expense, Fr. Rod said.

Two internationally recognized Filipino physicists, Christopher C. Bernido and Maria Victoria C. Bernido of the Research Center for Theoretical Physics at the Central Visayan Institute Foundation in Jagna, Bohol were on hand for the lecture. Christopher introduced the guest speaker while Marivic moderated the open forum. The CVIF is known for putting the Philippines on the world map in theoretical physics and has brought a number of Nobel physicists to the Center without fanfare.

The Bridges 2008 lecture series resumes in the Philippines February 4-8 with Prof. Finn Erling Kydland, Nobel economics laureate 2004, slated to discuss “Peace and economic development in the age of globalization” February 8 at the same venue in USC.

(Our thanks to N-ding Mission of the USC Library System for providing us with dvd's of the lecture and open forum. As USC apparently has no plans of transcribing the proceedings, I will take the trouble of doing that myself. The transcripts wil be made available here in due time).