Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Young People’s Participation in the 21st Century Science

(Published in the Proceedings of the 1st Abuja Science, Technology and Innovation Promotion Confab for Young and Aspiring Scientists which held Wednesday November 6 2013 at the Abuja Chamber of Commerce hall, along Airport Road, Abuja.)

Every century comes with its successes and challenges. So has it been for the 21st century. From one area of science to another, outstanding breakthroughs mark this era. These breakthroughs have in no small measure made science the news that stays news and biotechnology, as one of its witnesses. The seemingly impossible man’s complete genetic information has been successfully decoded. Cloning is also another visible one. A totipotent cell from one animal can be used in getting another identical animal with the
same genetic makeup. In other words, an animal can as well become her own father or twin sister. As if that is not enough, the genetic information of one organism has been successfully transplanted into another; meaning, your cat might as well become your dog. 

Medicine is also not left behind. We now talk of personalized medicine, as drugs are now tailored according to patients’ molecular background rather than by trial and error. Extracellular matrix powder derived from pig’s bladders is now being used in regrowing chopped off fingers, with brand tips and nails. Skin cells have also been rebooted and turned into stem cells. In fact, we are now closer to a point where any cell in our body can be rebooted back to its original factory settings (pluripotent stem cell) and now rebuild malfunctioning body parts. Human bladders have also been regrown and implanted into accident and cancer victims. Artificial limbs, eyes, ears, cartilage; in fact, prosthetic devices, now provide significant advantages and procedures to enhance the quality of life for the handicapped are almost common. At the same time, a Harvard University team stripped a mouse heart of all its cells, leaving only its cartilage. This cartilage was covered in mouse stem cells and found to have self-organized into a beating heart. 

Unprecedented has been the advance in the physical sciences. Telescopes have been developed that can search for planets in the Milky Way within 100 light years of earth and within a decade in this century, over 100 Earth-like planets have been identified. In fact, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a more ambitious programme using her Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, as well as her proposed launch in 2016 of the Terrestrial Planet Finder. Particle physics has also seen its next leap. Scientists in CERN, with their Large Hadron Colliders (LHC), discovered the god particle, the higgs boson. Although scientists await corroborating evidences from other advanced laboratories, the higgs boson discovery was no less to cling the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics. More so, a formal theoretical calculation of the mass of the neutrino, one of the most controversial in particle physics, has also been given by one of our very best in theoretical physics and applied mathematics, Professor Amagh Nduka. 

Unimaginable has been the progress in science that if some 20th century great scientists were to come back to life that they would find it difficult in comprehending the areas of science they made their greatest input. Even people born within the first decade of the 20th century never believed they would one day cross oceans and continents in near sonic flights. Let me exemplify more using an aspect of particle physics that I have just mentioned – the neutrinos. While investigating the conundrum of radioactive beta decay, physics Nobel laureate, Wulfgang Pauli, proposed in 1930 the existence of the neutrinos. He hypothesized the existence of yet undetected neutral particle so as to abide by the laws of energy conservation. This undetected neutral particle another physics Nobel laureate, Enrico Fermi, named neutrino – meaning, little neutral one. About his hypothesis, Pauli wrote: “I have done something very bad today by proposing a particle that cannot be detected; it is something no theorist should ever do”. However, in 1956, Clyde Cowan and Frederic Reines succeeded in detecting the electron neutrino. On getting this information, Pauli retorted: “Everything comes to him who knows how to wait”. The discovery of the electron neutrino was followed by that of the muon neutrino (1962) and tau neutrino (July 21 2000). Meanwhile, all these were initially perceived impossible by no less a great scientist Wulfgang Pauli.

The advances in science are so much that established scientists now find it difficult in keeping with the pace of progress in their fields. As a case in point, a Nigerian professor, who attended an international conference in his domain, told me that most of the technical paper presentations in the conference were abstract to him. If this be the case for a Professor, what then happens to young and aspiring scientists?

There is no doubt that many young people have, in their minds, a number of questions concerning their pursuit and participation in science. Most young people wonder if they will ever make a contribution to science. In fact, they have developed a complex problem. Worse still, an inferiority complex! The question is: how do we salvage our youths from this emotional apocalypse? Can our young people participate effectively even in this 21st century science? 

The answers to the above are not far-fetched. There are glimmers of hope that our young people can, and will, participate effectively in this 21st century science. Yes the advances in science can be intimidating, but nothing has really changed! The one thing that has changed, and will keep changing, is the discoveries in science. But beneath these discoveries, is business as usual. In other words, what helped 20th century scientists in making their marks can as well help our young and aspiring scientists in contributing their quota maximally to science.

COURAGE is therefore a vital ingredient for young people’s participation in the 21st century science. It is this attitude that has given the scientists of our day the power to penetrate contexts that would never have been understood through timid adherence to older and narrower ideas. It is the attitude that has left the scientists of our century free to develop new and broader conceptions of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, astronomy and others. It is the attitude that has given birth to technological feats and innovations that would otherwise have been unthinkable in previous generations. 

The place of courage in the pursuit of science is indispensible, and many young people made their marks by their display of courage. Times Magazine scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, is one of them. Special Relativity was the climax of his contribution to science. But this theory was merely situational. More so, the intellectual atmosphere was already charged for its emergence. At the time, many of the consequences of special relativity had already been worked out by Lorentz and Poincare. But due to their reputations, these great minds could not be bold in pronouncing that the velocity of light was a universal constant – the same for all observers. This situation was then to be leveraged upon by the young clerk, working in a patent office in Bern (Switzerland), Albert Einstein, to make the bold pronouncement and run away with the credit of discovering a new relativistic worldview of special relativity. Although many say Einstein was incredibly lucky, but the great significance of Einstein’s work was not only in its scientific outcome, but in the courage he displayed. Of course, Einstein, just as many present-day young scientists, had no reputation to guard. He was therefore free to be bold and imaginative.

It is also courage that made the two bicycle sellers and repairers, the Wright brothers, to think of airplane when the so-called experts had failed. In fact, the brothers were the least qualified in the list of aviation pioneers. More so, no sponsorship came their way. Yet, they flew the first controlled-flight in human history.

Another ingredient necessary for young people’s participation in the 21st century science is CREATIVITY, and this is the use of imagination to bring out something new and exciting.

Suffice it to say that the scientific achievements of the past provided the foundation for whatever discovery or innovation that has been witnessed in the 21st century science. More so, science builds on cumulative knowledge! In other words, every scientific advance is built on the works of others in the past. But it takes creativity to effectively build on people’s work. In which case, you may be looking at an older question from a different perspective. You may also be looking at an older discovery or invention from a new angle. For example, Newton’s reflecting telescope was just an improvement of Galileo’s telescope. The same Newton, through his inventiveness of calculus, was able to combine the works of others in synthesizing the Law of Universal Gravitation. Little wonder, he, who was by no means an epitome of humility said: “If I have seen farther, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants”. The giants being those whose work he built upon. This is an intellectual tradition that has and will forever hold sway in all disciplines.

Amidst other ingredients necessary for young people participation in the 21st century science is curiosity, hard work, tenacity, intuition and discipline. Young people should strive to imbibe all the attitudes necessary for effective participation in science. The book, Inculcating the Tenets of Great Scientists, authored by me is highly recommended.

Thanks and remain blessed.

Coordinator, Abuja STI Promotion Confab for Young and Aspiring Scientists
And Chairman, Global Science Development Initiatives