By Dan Kempner, Managing Editor, Valutus Sustainability R.O.I.
Last week I met a microbiologist, a former Vietnam War medic who has travelled the world meeting with other scientists, doing research, and working tirelessly to understand and manage infectious diseases. His dissertation focused on Alexandre Yersin, who developed an anti-plague vaccine at the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang, Vietnam, and my friend has been working along the same lines ever since.
I rather sheepishly told him of the work I do, and he said, “Man! I wish I could write!
This was through the looking glass stuff for me. This incredible man, who can understand the tiniest mysteries, and tame some of the most virulent disease agents in our world, was envious of my talents?
I, on the other hand, felt my usual awe when meeting a scientist, someone to whom the mysteries of the universe are revealed as numbers and symbolic mathematical relationships. This man has led teams at facilities around the globe, at the CDC, the WHO, and more. He’s helped develop vaccines, and policies that save lives all over the world.
Math and science don’t come easy to me, and I have to work hard just to understand the basic concepts of the work guys like him do every day.
My work on Valutus’ newsletter, Sustainability R.O.I., mashes me up against the newest innovations, the up-to-the-minute science, and the relevant statistics and metrics used in the field.
In the last few months alone we’ve written up nano-coated salt batteries, microscopic plastic-eating microbes, mammoth DNA cloning, and a host of other scientific topics. To effectively communicate these things we must do research, compare scientific studies, and just generally come to some understanding of how they work.
Which brings me to my fifth-grade science project.
We all had to do presentations on science or math, usually stuff we’d been exposed to in class. One kid did something with batteries, I think, and others did the usual run of measurements and magnets.
I presented something that, for me, was highly technical — an idea my mom came up with. I presented a numerical system using ‘Base 9’, where numbers sequenced from 0–9 instead of 0–10 — ‘base 10’ i.e., the system we all use every day. Until recently I thought I’d invented it, until a quick Google search revealed the awful truth. Even so, I was proud of my science project.
Then came Danny Bakkin, a tall, fleshy kid with John Lennon granny glasses and long hair parted in the middle. He didn’t play sports, just sat and read and thought. His parents were certified, card-carrying hippies. He took my excellent vocabulary and raised me about a thousand very cool and useful words.
He and I were close at that time — probably because the others could not understand him at all — while I used to listen, clutching at fragments of meaning in his more adult ideas, and broader use of language.
For his project, I remember, he had a blacklight and some other paraphernalia arranged on a table. “I will now,” he said, “demonstrate the photoelectric effect.”
The what?! This was my cue to tuck my ‘base 9’ materials out of sight beneath a table.
Now, the rest of us thought blacklights were cool because they made our teeth and our Day-Glo posters light up in the dark. So it was a mystery to us when Danny turned on his lamp and attempted to demonstrate the experiment that, I now know, earned Einstein the Nobel Prize, introduced new particles called photons, and created quantum physics — bing, bang, boom!
Danny’s blacklight, presumably, was shaking electrons loose from a negatively charged surface so they could stream across a vacuum to a positively charged one, thus proving (briefly!) that light must be a particle rather than a wave.
(Okay, full disclosure: I just watched a video on YouTube.)
I can’t speak for the other ten-year-olds, but I had my mouth open as Danny’s demonstration commenced, and it hung open for the next ten minutes. I don’t think I understood a word of it, but I did feel the power of science reaching out to me, telling me it could unfold the fabric of the universe in a drab Toronto classroom. I also realized in that moment that I might want to take my career in another, less technical, direction even if the stuff enthralled me.
It occurs to me now, as I cull through stories on sustainability, that the science being done, the incredible innovations being created, continue to instill in me that sense of wonder, the feeling I’m in a vast yet orderly universe, where stuff can be figured out by smart people who speak its language.
We’ve used what the Einsteins, Nobels, and Edisons have given us for evil at times, certainly; and for thoughtless squandering of our planet’s envelope. Scientists, after all, are often more concerned with learning than with consequences. And those consequences are not always to be desired.
In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the author’s surrogate, Jubal Harshaw, spoke with his live-in handyman about technology after a gizmo failed to work:
Larry offered him the ‘panic button’ portable radio link.
“You wanted this, Boss?”
“I wanted to sneer at it. Larry, let this be a lesson: never trust machinery more
complicated than a knife and fork.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“…If you see the man who invented the wheel, send him up. Meddler!“
From Prometheus on down, we’ve struggled to make technology and science serve us without creating more problems than they solve. Yet it is those very people we cry out for when problems need solving.
We have a very significant problem right now and, while I can report on the solutions scientists and engineers create — making airplane fuels from forest litter, using sphagnum moss to clean industrial cooling towers, creating mini-turbines people can hang outside their Manhattan windows, and so on — I could never be part of creating those breakthroughs.
Da Vinci was one of the finest engineers, and also one of the finest artist of his day. That is a rare combination. I have always been grateful that there are people in the world who can show me that light is a particle and a wave, who can explain the photoelectric effect and, more importantly, can use what they learn to help the world.
So to my old friend Danny Bakkin, wherever he is, and to my new friend the microbiologist, I say… thanks. Thanks for being able to do what I cannot, for understanding the universe symbolically, so that it can be made to cough up its secrets. Thanks for making some of today’s potentially world-saving innovations possible.
Yet at this point, it is not just about gratitude. Right now I am desperately clinging to faith in their abilities, to the notion that they can create and implement solutions to the climate crisis that will save us from the misused innovations of the past. Surely the combined scientific skills of the world’s universities, science-based corporations, and governments, can get us out of this mess, right?
I am desperately hoping they can. So that, when my own children get to fifth grade in a few years, there will still be a chance they can live in an inhabitable world. In the meantime, when the bright boys and girls come up with something, I’ll be here — to write about it.
Thanks for reading. Your comments are welcomed.