From the moment our forbears first picked up flint and struck fire or constructed a makeshift axe we have been a people of tool users. More than that we have sought out and refined tools that make things easier. It perhaps wouldn’t be unkind to suggest that the entirety of humanity’s progress has been driven by an overweening desire to do as little as possible. The car, the remote control, the microwave, the chainsaw, the hairdryer each and every one of these ubiquitous products the direct result of our not wanting to waste time performing mundane tasks. For those of a certain age the idea of having to traipse all the way across the sitting room to change channels will be as bizarre and unthinkable as fish riding bicycles.
We are now however in the midst of a new era, an era that unlike those that preceded it is predicated on the idea of not what is necessary, what is needed, what is useful or helpful but rather what is possible. When I studied science, there was really nothing new, there are but a handful of things I took away from my seven odd years of learning, something to do with Boyle’s Law and a left hand, the names of various parts of a flower, useful only for the odd occasion it crops up on a crossword and that the name nylon is a portmanteau of New York and London to reflect its simultaneous invention on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s it. There was nothing new, science was ticking over, resting on the laurels earned in the 60s when they put someone on the moon, somewhere so important they didn’t bother ever returning. The internet was barely in its infancy – a military communications device only, the portable CD player reigned supreme as the breakthrough of our times.
Then all of a sudden seemingly the floodgates opened, pioneers, innovators, inventors emerged as the rock stars of this new generation. Billionaires each and every one, those with magnificently simple ideas that screamed out, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ Taking their inspiration from comic book wish fulfilment, hover cars, space travel, self driving cars, robots, sex robots, VR, faster, leaner, shinier and crucially not dull. Using the internet, they turbocharged every aspect of human life, even my mother, the most aggressively luddite person you could encounter, now has a router in her house. It’s not plugged in of course but it’s there. How we shop, read, learn, interact, bank, apply for jobs, listen to music, watch TV and films, all of it changed forever.
Now for the first time since the 60s we are locked in a scientific pissing contest, not between countries but companies, just for the sheer love of winning and innovation, Branson, Musk and Bezos dangling their scientific wangs out of the windows of their spaceships’ cockpits in a race to see who will get a fare paying passenger into space. You could be cynical and say this has less to do with progress than silly, rich dilettantes arsing about because they don’t know what to do with their immense fortunes. Which may very well be true. But who cares? Honestly does it matter? Regardless of the reasons, altruistic or egoistic they are constrained by nothing but the limits of their ambition and when that happens so too do breakthroughs. When you reflect on the ancillary benefits that have come out of NASA’s work beyond biros that write upside down and Velcro, what is happening today is incredible. So much of what they want to achieve is new and ill-considered they have in essence created a series of minor problems they need to solve before solving the larger problem they have created for themselves which inevitably means new, fascinating discoveries that will propel us forward. Sir Richard Branson announced yesterday his long mooted Virgin Galactic is now seeing light at the end of the tunnel and space flight becomes comparatively accessible and for those who are used to an annual season ticket cost on Virgin Trains it won’t seem too onerous.
Even taking aside the upping of its game in terms of perception, the sheer undeniable necessity of encouraging STEM careers is so apparent within the context of our losing our manufacturing market, geo climate altering work and the rise of superbugs. This generation needs to not just change the world but save it, save us and protect their children from Spanish Flu, rising tides and economic ruin.
So, now more than ever we should be encouraging entrepreneurial flair, innovation and hammering home the message that STEM is here to stay and unlike the fusty codgers of my schooling we now have Tony Stark style billionaire eccentrics leading the charge in what is possible. The teaching of science as a viable career is thrilling nowadays – what seemed like a dusty, archaic history lesson with formulae is now fresh, current and fascinating. Which should come as a real boon to my 5 year old whose set his sights on intergalactic travel, curing cancer and possibly becoming a power ranger. In a world where people are willing to believe anything is possible if they can dream it, I can’t think why I would tell him otherwise.
If you are interested in accessing a career in the sciences, be sure to check out my interview with Dr Barry Gibb PhD, a research scientist, author and documentarian for the Wellcome Trust in the book, Is your school lying to you? https://tinyurl.com/y8re84zo