Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Leading the 21st Century Intellectual Revolution

(An editorial in the January-April 2016 edition of the magazine: The Budding Scientist – Grooming Successors in Science, Mathematics and Engineering)

A glance at the present era will convince us that science makes history, and that the growth of knowledge is a compelling force in historical events. The historical changes in the life of man are expressions and consequences of intellectual development – a new manner of thinking, a new way of seeing the world – inevitably bring about the changes in man's activity (even in his everyday life).

The western intellectual tradition, no doubt, has seen a lot of these changes. Was it not believed that the basic essences of the universe (matter) are earth, water, air,
and fire? These Aristotelian elements were accepted as the building block of matter for over 2000 years. Meanwhile, within these periods, Democritus, a solitary thinker, regarded as a madman by his neighbours and fellow citizens, had developed the idea of the atom as the building block of matter. But this saw no light of the day until the English chemist and meteorologist, John Dalton, came with his atomic postulates in 1803.
It is quite unfortunate that we have come to take for granted the atomic doctrine so much so that we hardly appreciate its intellectual audacity. It was Democritus who, for the first time, laid the threads in the understanding of the nature of chemical processes, and at the same time, expounded the idea of nature governed by law. He was, essentially, the founder and first proponent of scientific thinking.

Physicists had also long believed in the existence of the ether, a mysterious substance so tenuous as to pass through all walls and fill every vessel from which air has been removed. This ether, as it was held, occupied the cosmic space between the stars and so made it possible for light waves to reach us from the most distant stars. This concept was regarded indispensible, and generations of physicists engaged in all forms of speculation with a view of defining its properties. No definite solution ever emerged, and the concept yielded no fruitful idea. However, Einstein's theory of special relativity was to give a final knock on this. It overwhelmingly refuted the existence of the ether. For if there were an ether, it would have been possible to devise some experiments to measure the speed with which the earth moved through it. The theory of special relativity therefore convinces us that such experiments are impossible and as such, the concept of ether now exists in the grave yard.

The cause of diseases was also, for centuries, a source of controversy. Many people believed, at the time, that diseases were a sort of punishment from God for man's evildoings. Some others attributed it to poisonous vapours from sewage, and this was held highly by notable scientists of the time. This controversy persisted until just about 15 decades ago, when Louis Pasteur and his student, Robert Koch, led an intellectual revolution referred to as the germ theory of disease, which proposes that many common ailments are caused by microbes. Ever since, the accepted spectrum of infectious causation has increased steadily and dramatically.

Fermentation, a process by which simple sugar is broken down to carbon (iv) oxide and alcohol with the concomitant release of energy, was also thought to only occur in living (or yeast) cells. This was the accepted knowledge at the time and was strongly supported by the great chemist and bacteriologist, Louis Pasteur. But in 1896, the German brothers and scientists, Hans and Eduard Buchner, in their pharmaceutical experiments made observations that contradicted this established theory. The brothers therefore rejected the theory of fermentation only occurring in living cells and proposed that fermentation can as well take place outside living cells (cell-free fermentation). This discovery was quite revolutionizing, and for the first time ever, metabolism, which was formerly viewed as biology, became chemistry. It was also to open a whole lot of new vistas in the field of biochemistry.

Science has indeed witnessed a lot of revolutions, and these revolutions have advanced the funerals of ideas strongly held, but poorly supported by evidence. One may ask: are there revolutions in the 21st century science, and even if there is, who leads in this revolution?

A revolution has just begun in the 21st century science and it is purely Nigerian. Professor Amagh Nduka, world-renowned Professor of Theoretical Physics and Applied Mathematics, and former Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, who also is the world's Google Scholar of the Year for 2012 and 2013 (respectively), leads in this revolution. May we aware you that Professor A. Nduka has, to his credit, some outstanding contributions to science. Some of these contributions have, in perspectives, jangled the underpinnings of science. His recent theories on the structure of nuclei, atoms and molecules; neutrino mass, quantum and four-operator mathematics, fusion energy, and global warming are quite illuminating and challenging. His contributions have indeed opened an intellectual revolution in the 21st century science, and these were the focus of the Science Nigeria Lectures which held Wednesday June 17, 2015 at the ETF Hall, University of Abuja. According to A. Nduka, “What we have done puts Nigeria as number one in science, and I'm the only authority in the world in it”.

It is therefore obvious that the ideas of A. Nduka may not ring much bell today. It may even take a generation or more to have significant effect. But in all, it has given us a glimpse of science in the future, and will certainly be a crucial factor in our tomorrow's decisions. We therefore congratulate him and every other Nigerian who has made us proud in science.

Editor, The Budding Scientist 
And Chairman, Global Science Development Initiatives