From giant leaps to gallops: Science in the fast lane

We’ve come a long way since the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel; yet the most advanced inventions and significant discoveries that have remarkably changed human life (mostly for the better, if you leave out the blunder of the atom bomb) have been made in the last seven or eight decades. What took mankind so many centuries to reach this pinnacle of achievement, setting us on a course from which there is no looking back?

According to mathematician and inventor, Jacob Bronowski, “The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself”— Science has thus made its presence felt, as an important element for the progress of mankind, rescuing us from the dark ages of ignorance and superstition that we lived in for so long. Development of better research tools that help us unravel the mysteries of the universe is one other reason. And despite the controversy regarding predatory scientific/ academic journals and plagiarism, the capacity to communicate with scientists all over the world, to collaborate with other researchers and to publish your research, ensures that knowledge does not remain concentrated in the hands of a few, and that the wheel isn’t reinvented multiple times.

Apart from this, the governments of most countries are doing their bit by providing an impetus to scientific research in the form of financial support. While Edison could invent the light bulb in his own private laboratory with modest equipment, it is close to impossible for a single researcher to make a contribution in the current scenario, in a self- funded lab (unless she/he’s a millionaire and has got a slew of employees working under her/him).

Besides, given the knowledge we’ve already acquired, use of this knowledge needs to be regulated as well, to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands and being misused. Science has diversified into various branches too, making it impossible for a single person to be adept in all of them; no research work today can be done without a team.

From developing vaccines that have eradicated some of the deadliest diseases on the earth, to decoding the human genome, every discovery, every invention has taken us one step further to making the utopia envisaged in science fiction a reality. Humanoid robots, drugs tailored to suit each person and invisibility cloaks….the list of possibilities is endless.

The future of science seems both frightening and intriguing; while we fret over our privacy being invaded by Aadhaar, we might just enter a future where each of our unique DNA would be sequenced, and serve as our identity instead of a mere number or a fingerprint. While we rejoice that Hyderabad is now in the ‘Metro’ league, we need to be aware of a much faster, avant-garde invention called the Hyperloop, that is being developed by Tesla and SpaceX— a passenger transport system that uses a system of sealed tubes filled with vacuum, thus allowing a closed “capsule” that contains either people or goods, to travel at unimaginable speeds, in the absence of air friction.

If our earlier attempts were to tinker with the genes in single-celled organisms (usually, one at a time), we have now at hand CRISPR, the latest genetic engineering technology developed by the Broad Institute at Harvard University, that equips scientists with the ability to edit or delete genes in specific targeted cells in living organisms, including humans. Could this mean that we manage to ensure that anyone with a genetic disorder can be “cured” with a simple cut-paste action by CRISPR, or also that we can now have “designer” babies? Only time will tell!

Human activity alone has wiped off several species from the face of this planet, but before we recover from this man-made “sixth mass extinction”— as it is being termed by scientists— we are already creating new species of our own. Researchers in the United States have created artificial life— a semi-synthetic organism— an E. coli bacterium that contains a hybrid of natural and artificial DNA, and is capable of creating hitherto unknown synthetic proteins!

In our race towards “bigger” and “better” achievements, we have neglected our earth, and our environment far too long. While science can take care of our needs, there is no end to human greed. Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), which received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, said in her acceptance speech that a a nuclear war, and consequent destruction of mankind, is “just one impulsive tantrum away”.

There is a chance that one day, our planet may no longer be habitable. Space travel might be our only chance of survival, as we look for greener pastures on the other side of the Universe. Let’s hope that the latest research project that involves establishing a human colony on Mars, becomes a reality by then.

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