by Len Bruton


Humans as Animals

Humans in Space and Time

The Pre-science and Modern Scientific Views

The Role of Science and Technology

The Course:  Scientific and Technological Literacy

The Enhancing Undergraduate Learner's Experience (EULE) program at the University of Calgary organizes university-wide lectures for its undergraduate students, given by selected scholars:  the following is the slide presentation of the EULE lecture I delivered on February, 25th, 2003:

'Ideas'  by  Len Bruton, PowerPoint Format  (1.4 MBytes) or as Web Presentation (faster)


Humans as Animals

Humans currently have a different view of the material world, and especially of human life, than was generally held prior to the ascent of science.  Modern scientific knowledge has revolutionized our view of our place in Nature. 

The theory of evolution is now widely accepted as fact, leading to the profound realization that we humans are animals, descended from earlier primates.  The science of genetics has demonstrated that we are all products of an inherited set of molecular instructions that determines our biochemical make up.  This human instruction set is stored as a sequence of spatially arranged atoms in the DNA molecules that inhabit every cell of our bodies and this sequence is remarkably similar to that of the instruction set to be found in the cells of virtually all other forms of life on Earth.  In this sense, humans are simply another form of DNA-replicated life on Earth, distinguished less by our biology and more by our level of consciousness and our intelligence.

Humans in Time and Space

Astronomy, cosmology, paleontology and other scientific disciplines have clearly established that we, and all other known life forms, exist in an almost unimaginably special and lonely place. 

We exist at a very special and very recent time.  Our primate ancestors first emerged on planet Earth about 15 thousand million years after the birth of our Universe and about 5 thousand million years after the birth of Earth.  The first primates emerged about 5 million years ago, whereas biologically-modern humans emerged, at most, about 0.2 million years ago.  Putting our animal-newcomer status another way, we biologically-modern humans emerged during the last 0.0013 % of the period of time since the known Universe was born and during the last 0.0004 % of the period of the time since the Earth formed.  If we do the calculation another way and ask how long it has taken modern humans to develop from the earliest primates, we find that we have only been around for about 4% of the time since they first emerged.  On the other hand, biological life is not a recent arrival on Earth and has been around, in one for or another, for about 60% of the time since the Earth formed.

We exist in a very special and isolated location in space.  So far, most of the observed material in the Universe is in the form of burning spherical balls of gases, the stars, and inter-stellar dust.  Our Earth orbits one of these stars, the Sun.  We play out our lives in the bottom 2 metres of the Earth's almost-spherical atmosphere.  Both us and our atmosphere are held in place on the surface of the Earth by the force of gravity.  Beyond Earth, the vast regions of inter-stellar space are almost totally empty of material.   We collectively live in an unimaginably small and lonely speck of space within our Universe.  As one learns about the special circumstances and precarious nature of all life, it is indeed impossible not to be impressed by both its highly special circumstances and, thereby, its fragility.

The Pre-science and the Modern Scientific Views

The pre-science view of human existence held that we are at the top of the ladder of life, in dominion over other life forms and having a destiny to control Nature in order to serve the 'progress' of humanity.  As we enter the 21st century, this view is rapidly fading away.  We have come to understand that our existence as a species is fragile and totally dependent on the existence of a diverse array of life forms which, in turn, are totally dependent on changing environmental conditions on Earth.  We now recognize that the intensities of Nature's uncontrollable forces are overwhelming compared with the forces that we control in our daily lives.  Far from being in dominion over Nature, we now recognize that we are a species of animal whose continuing existence is highly threatened.  Other life forms on Earth, such as bacteria, may lack our intelligence but are more far biologically successful at adapting to the rapidly changing environmental conditions on Earth. 

As science has revealed the collective behaviour of pods, colonies, flocks, schools, hives or tribes of non-human animals (such as whales, birds, ants, bees, bacteria, etc.), it has become increasingly evident that the collective behaviour of the network of such animals is far more complex than can be explained by studying the behaviour of a single member of the collective.  There exists emergent behaviour of the network that cannot be understood by means of a process of reduction: that is, by more finely dividing the elements of the system.  One ends up with the same types of atoms that make up all forms of life as reductionism is employed to its limit.   Modern science seeks to understand how a hive of bees carries out the complex emergent behaviour of the hive in a synchrony of individual behaviours.  Extrapolating from a hive of bees, modern science seeks to explain and predict how the collective of humans on Earth behaves and what is the form of the human network that we are collectively creating on Earth.  Modern science wants to know about the information that instructs or governs the collective behaviour of the network of animals.  It is becoming increasing evident that all matter is networked, animate and inanimate, and much of modern emerging science is about understanding the complex behaviour of these networks of networks.

When science discovers the answer to a question about Nature, the discovery usually poses a multitude of new unanswered questions.  In many ways, science is a process of increasing our ignorance while increasing our understanding.  There is nothing in the findings of modern science to suggest that we understand reality.  In fact, the scientific knowledge gained in the 21st century is truly humbling.  All matter is now understood to be a form of locally frozen energy and we have no really good idea of the essence of that energy or of the essence of the forces that we observe acting between all material entities. 

The Role of Science and Technology

While scientific knowledge has provided the bedrock of knowledge upon which modern society has been built, many of us who live in modern societies are isolated from Nature in our daily lives and from the scientific principles that will always govern our existence.  We recognize that technologies have led directly to the high standard of living and longevity that are enjoyed by some humans but, at the same time, we also recognize that technologies have created unsustainable ways of living.  We are rightfully concerned about such issues as human population growth, the extinctions and genetic modifications of plants and animals, human poverty, global warming,  human rights and so on.  As a species, our long term survival requires that we control and curtail the growth of the human population and that we rapidly move to a way of living that is sustainable on Earth for the forseable future.

Many of the major issues that are confronting humanity are rooted in science and technology.   Scientific knowledge and technology have clearly contributed to many of the challenges that we face.  However,  it is equally clear that science and technology provide the means of addressing these challenges. 

The Course:  Scientific and Technological Literacy

In order for society at large to make intelligent decisions about the appropriate applications of science and technology, it is important that individuals have an adequate understanding science and the scientific process.  The course is descriptive and is specifically designed for the junior level non-science student who would like to understand the underlying principles of science, the major scientific ideas and the ways in which these ideas and principles lead to the applications of technological innovations in society. 

The course is in three parts.  The first part of the course is designed to provide a basic understanding of the external world in which we all live.  This includes the material entities of that external world, such as atoms and molecules, solids, liquids and gases, planets and stars.  We describe the major forces that act between these material entities.  Without such an understanding of the forces of Nature, it is almost impossible to understand the principles of science and the role of science in society.  These forces allow us to understand the principles by which energy (i.e. the capacity to do work) is exchanged from place to place, about how matter self-organizes, about entropy, complexity and self-replication in material systems.

The second part of the course focuses on how scientific ideas emerge in society and, in particular, the historical process by which these  ideas have emerged over time.  The emergence of ideas is understood to be evolutionary.  Memes (i.e. replicating thoughts) play a similar role to the role that genes play in biological evolution.  We trace the memetic evolution of scientific ideas by reference to some of the major scientists who first thought about and described their ideas.  In this way, it is hoped that the reader will appreciate current and future trends in the evolution of scientific ideas and the associated innovations in society.

The third part of the course relates to the ideas that are currently emerging in modern science and the associated technologies.  Much of our current technological infrastructure, such as habitats, transportation systems, food production and distribution systems have been implemented on the basis of the macro scientific knowledge that created the Industrial Revolution.  This knowledge was based on macro science, in the sense that much of the the applied science did not require an understanding of how nature behaves at spatial scales much smaller than the molecular level and, in many cases, it depended largely on an understanding of how aggregates of molecules behave in solid, liquid and gaseous materials. 

As we enter the 21st century, many of the important emerging technologies are based on micro sciences and nano sciences.  The micro sciences are concerned with how Nature behaves at size scales in the order of a micro meter (one millionth of a meter) and the nano sciences with how nature behaves at size scales in the order of a nano meter (one thousandth of a millionth of a meter); that is, on the scientific principles that govern the behaviour of Nature at size scales at the molecular and atomic levels.   The micro sciences include information technologies, biotechnologies and advanced materials technologies.  

The information technologies are facilitated by mathematics, information science and advanced inorganic materials and they include computers, electronic devices, telecommunications and the Internet.  The biotechnologies are facilitated by the sciences of mathematics, biochemistry, genetics and proteomics and they include medicine, genetic engineering and animal cloning. 

The lives of today's young people will be significantly impacted by emerging scientific knowledge, scientific ideas and technological innovations.  The 21st century can be a time when humans harness the applications of science to the benefit of life on Earth although, at worst, it can be a time when the awesome powers of many technologies can destroy or control life to the detriment of all who manage to survive.

It is hoped that this course will provide students with a better understanding of these issues.