Why is science important?

By Phil Plait | February 20, 2009 7:08 am

I met Alom Shaha last year while in London; by coincidence, really. He was working with my friend Gia filming an interview with her, and I tagged along (I got to use the clapper to start the clips!). Afterwards we went to a diner and had a great conversation. Gia and I left, and I figured I’d never hear from him again.

Wrong! Alom had an idea, and it was a good one: get scientists and science popularizers to write essays and make videos, saying why they thought science was important, and put them on a website called, oddly, Why is Science Important. Alom asked me to do one, and I kept blowing him off until he I felt way too guilty, so I finally caved and made a video.

It’s now online, and here it is:

Love it, hate it? Leave a comment at Alom’s site! And check out the videos and essays others have sent him. There’s a lot of very good stuff there.

Science is important. Go find out why.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science, Skepticism

Comments (58)

  1. Quick ‘n’ dirty (repeating yourself maybe a little too much), but still quite a good clip.

  2. fos

    Awesome! I am sharing this with my 7th grade students today.

  3. Terrific video and a great site. Thanks!

    Ted

    tedhohio@gmail.com

  4. U747

    Phil,
    I swear that sometimes you sound like Bill Nye to me.
    Especially when I hear you saying the world “science!”.
    You have similar tempo, and your voice sounds pretty close.

    Maybe it’s just me though.

  5. Kevin

    Was the placement of Stewie Griffin behind you on purpose? It works!

    Science rules.
    Science is cool.

  6. Pete M

    Excellent video – compelling as always.

    As an aside, is there anything you can do about the side advert for the 2012 forum? I hoped it was a debunking site, but alas no. Most frightening reading.

  7. It’s a good video, but I prefer not to evaluate the importance of science in terms of technology. I think the desire to explore and discover is reason enough- regardless of the relative technological importance of the science being done.

  8. Radwaste

    If any of you have the opportunity to vacation in Florida, turn your nose up at the fake stuff at Disney, and get out to Kennedy Space Center. See the Saturn V Exhibit. NASA, Paramount and Disney actually rebuilt Mission Control (in a different building), and set it up to cycle through the launch of Apollo 17. Introduced by James Lovell on a main screen, every detail is there. Seats are draped with lab coats from companies long gone. All the workstations cycle through their screens as they did that night. At “ignition”, the room flares orange with the fire of five F-1s.

    When I went to see it, and they got to zero, I started counting backwards softly. My wife whispered to me, “Why are you counting?” Right on cue, someone in the audience said, “Why isn’t there any noise?” I just grinned wider and went, “Two. One.” And the room shook. The windows, the floor, the people, exactly as it did when 17 left more than 30 years ago, over three thousand tons of thrust at work.

    Think you’ve seen an engine? These are engines!

  9. Bruce

    Great job Phil! And may I say that I find your enthusiasm and joy talking about science is as important as what you are saying.

  10. Who wielded the holy clapper for this video clip?

  11. DENTISTRY. Return to belt-driven drills? Pliers pulling rotted teeth? Empty gums by age 25?

  12. IVAN3MAN

    Dr. Phil Plait:

    Satellites… help us predict our weather. They give us Global Positioning Systems. All of this stuff. You know Global Positioning Systems? [They] depend on [General] Relativity. Without Einstein’s Relativity, GPS… wouldn’t work!

    Yes, Phil. Of course, but try telling that to the likes of “Anaconda” and “Oil Is Mastery”! Bloody “Anaconda” is currently over at Universe Today, regurgitating the same “Electric Universe/Plasma Cosmology” swill, like a sick parrot, as he did over here. :roll:

  13. Phil, your summary is excellent. And there’s still so much we don’t know. The possibilities are almost endless, if not endless.

  14. Habu

    Excellent clip. It seems to me that too many people take science for granted.

  15. IVAN3MAN

    Speak of the Devil!

  16. Todd W.

    Ah, Anaconda. Have you returned to answer the unanswered questions in the Roar of the Centaur thread? Fabulous. I’m on the edge of my seat with anticipation.

  17. glued

    President of JREF.. Psssh.

    You smug bastard. :P

    Might as well plug in ‘Time’s 25 Best Blogs of 2009′ and ‘Author of Death From the Skies’.

    Great video by the way, but +1 on The Chemist’s post.

  18. Phil I must admit this was the first monologue which i liked and listened with apt attention !
    You really derived the point home very well why science is important !

  19. Manveet

    I’m laughing at the Stewie poster in the background.

  20. QUASAR

    We need some kind of an encyclopedia of science(all sciences) because our sciencetific knowlege is currently scattered.

  21. Randy A.

    Phil, I loved your video. But there’s one thing that I think you missed: science is FUN!
    People do crossword and soduku puzzles as entertainment, but as scientists we solve puzzles as a career! And so many of our instruments are totally cool — especially astronomy with it’s giant telescopes.
    Often scientists get to work in fantastic locations. Just think, if you were a marine biologist specializing in coral, you could be on a tropical beach right now…
    How does this make science important to the general public? Because they can participate, too! Anybody can look at the sky (astronomy and meteorology!). Anybody can explore the geological wonders of nearby natural areas. Many of us can easily get to a beach, even if it isn’t tropical (apologies to those in landlocked states).
    My son’s Cub Scout pack recently studied physics — they thought they were racing their toy cars. But they learned about energy, motion and friction while having FUN!
    As a science teacher, I try to stress this whenever I can. Science is FUN!

  22. oh, I will show this to my friend. She and I hade a funny discussion. She said that social science is the reason why we are here right now. That the humans wouldn’t be something without it. And I said that science IS the reason that we are here. No science no revolution and so on ;D. Memories:P

  23. Great clip, Phil! I left a comment on Alom’s site, but it won’t display right away, moderated as it is.
    Enthusiasm is key to getting the message remembered, so if U747 says you sound like Bill Nye, that’s a good thing! You only need the -WOOSH- sound FX when you gesture and you’re there! :-)

  24. Science! It’s what works!

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I prefer not to evaluate the importance of science in terms of technology.

    I would even go so far to contest it, as technology is mostly orthogonal to science. A great example is the computer chips that Phil mentioned – without the technology driven invention of ion implanters and, later, stepper technology for photo lithography, there would be no chips.

    But it is IMHO true that science, or even the basic methodology of experimental observation, is vital to technology in the sense that it would otherwise be very difficult to make models and understand how to make the next invention that is needed.

    And by the same token, technology is vital for science. Hubble will suffice as an example.

    So, aye, technology is an obvious “in your face” example for laymen of why science is important, but it is not the perfect example because of the fuzzy relationships. Instead I would say that knowledge is exhilarating. And science is the only way to go from contingent learning about your nearest environment to absolute knowledge about the universe.

    And that is important, because, um, ah, … well, it is. :-) (To me, at least. Or to anyone who wants to avoid Death from the Skies, perhaps.)

  26. Charles Boyer

    Technology (aka engineering) is the practical application of science. It’s really that simple and no need for much more explanation than that.

    Engineers couldn’t do their jobs without science and more than science could make discoveries without benefit of engineering. The two are like yin and yang.

  27. Stark

    Torbjörn – Science and technology orthogonal? I certainly don’t think so. There is no small relationship between modern technological achievement and science. It’s fine and dandy to think up an invention – say, a monitor for instance – but until somebody has done the research, pure science research, to determine the physical mechanisms that would even allow such a device to be constructed it’s nothing more than a fictional idea. Technology, as we know it, cannot come into existence without science. It is no coincidence that wide scale adoption of the scientific method coincides with the technological explosion of the last 300 years. Science and technology are completely entwined at this point. Science discovers something new and unexpected (say the LED for example) and technology then applies that discovery in some useful way. In the opposite direction we have technology pointing the way to where we’d like to head – say, from CRT monitors to flat screens to eventual true 3D displays – which in turn drives science to find ways to make these ideas possible.

  28. Stark

    Dang! Charles is much more succinct than I it would appear. :)

  29. Adrian Lopez

    How significant is Hubble’s development to the development of modern digital cameras. According to Wikipedia, the CCD started out like this:

    “Eugene F. Lally of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote a paper published in 1961, “Mosaic Guidance for Interplanetary Travel”, illustrating a mosaic array of optical detectors that formed a photographic image using digital processing. Digital photography was conceived by this paper. Lally noted such an optical array required development so digital cameras could be produced. The required array consisting of CCD technology was invented in 1969 by Willard Boyle and George E. Smith at AT&T Bell Labs. The lab was working on the picture phone and on the development of semiconductor bubble memory. Merging these two initiatives, Boyle and Smith conceived of the design of what they termed ‘Charge “Bubble” Devices’. The essence of the design was the ability to transfer charge along the surface of a semiconductor. As the CCD started its life as a memory device, one could only “inject” charge into the device at an input register. However, it was immediately clear that the CCD could receive charge via the photoelectric effect and electronic images could be created. By 1969, Bell researchers were able to capture images with simple linear devices; thus the CCD was born. Several companies, including Fairchild Semiconductor, RCA and Texas Instruments, picked up on the invention and began development programs. Fairchild was the first with commercial devices and by 1974 had a linear 500 element device and a 2-D 100 x 100 pixel device. Under the leadership of Kazuo Iwama, Sony also started a big development effort on CCDs involving a significant investment. Eventually, Sony managed to mass produce CCDs for their camcorders. Before this happened, Iwama died in August 1982. Subsequently, a CCD chip was placed on his tombstone to acknowledge his contribution.

    In January 2006, Boyle and Smith were awarded the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize for their work on the CCD.”

  30. Adrian Lopez

    PS – The first sentence above is intended as a question.

  31. Davidlpf

    Too a fellow traveller of the black, awesome post.

  32. Awwwww Phil. You removed the link to Anaconda’s site? :D

  33. That was really excellent. Great stuff. 8)

  34. Logan

    That’s right. Science is important. Not only because it is constantly learning, expanding… breaking it’s own limits. When any new scientific theory has came around, people didn’t think it was possible, probably because they just weren’t looking. Gravity, light, evolution. A flat Earth! Only when someone says “it’s probably because…” and then follow it up with something other than God were they ever opposed. Science means something to me because it can admit when it is wrong on spot. Not after repeated naggings and ridicule(like the church{sorry to keep picking on religion}) do they admit there could be fault in their claim, or a last minute change in mind does in Gods plan.

  35. For fans of the old B/W ‘educational’ videos:
    http://www.archive.org/details/WhyStudy1955_2

    WHY study Science?

    J/P=?

  36. Quiet Desperation

    Science is important, but engineers bring it all to life. :-)

    A flat Earth!

    Actually, it’s a bit of a myth that anyone thought the Earth was flat any time after the 14th century, and the spherical model survived amongst scholars consistently since ancient Greece.

  37. BigBob

    I loved it. Short and to the point. Beautiful. I’ll show it to my kids. Not that they need persuading.
    It reminds me of the good old webcasts. And while I’m on the subject, will you do more webcasts? Soon?
    Bob(Big)

  38. Corey Parker

    Phil, I freaking love you. <3

  39. Gary Ansorge

    Science very important. W/O it we wouldn’t have vaccines,,,

    Speaking of astronomy,,,Phil, what?, no reminder about the green comet(Lulin)???

    Good thing I access more than ONE science site,,,

    GArey 7

  40. Sachie

    I’m linking the clip to the Way of Science course site on Blackboard and on Monday, showing my students (70 this semester) what a cool friend I have. I’ve already shown Richard Wiseman’s amazing spoon bending trick video from TAM6 and his amazing color changing card trick in class and they just loved him. Now, it’s your turn.

    Sachie

  41. Naomi

    Cool! It’s like a far more articulate version of the start of my last year’s final-year seminar XD (It was about science and scientific skepticism. Unfortunately, in a group made up of a few religious people and some hardcore new-age followers, it didn’t, uh, get very well recieved.)

  42. Grand Lunar

    Ah ha! I see the hidden message to bow before you! But I shall prevail!

    Kidding aside, this message ought to be distrubed in the science classes of the WORLD.

    The closing statements on what stars have to do with us is the most lovely thing I find about the universe; that something whose forces can destroy life can contribute to it’s formation.
    I would just love to pronouce in a loud voice to all: I love being stellar thermonuclear waste!

  43. JB of Brisbane

    It’s actually much easier to explain why New Age Technologies are important ;-)

    “Actually, even I don’t know why New Age Technologies are important – they just are.”

  44. Nigel Depledge

    Radwaste said:

    If any of you have the opportunity to vacation in Florida, turn your nose up at the fake stuff at Disney, and get out to Kennedy Space Center. See the Saturn V Exhibit. NASA, Paramount and Disney actually rebuilt Mission Control (in a different building), and set it up to cycle through the launch of Apollo 17. Introduced by James Lovell on a main screen, every detail is there. Seats are draped with lab coats from companies long gone. All the workstations cycle through their screens as they did that night. At “ignition”, the room flares orange with the fire of five F-1s.

    When I went to see it, and they got to zero, I started counting backwards softly. My wife whispered to me, “Why are you counting?” Right on cue, someone in the audience said, “Why isn’t there any noise?” I just grinned wider and went, “Two. One.” And the room shook. The windows, the floor, the people, exactly as it did when 17 left more than 30 years ago, over three thousand tons of thrust at work.

    Think you’ve seen an engine? These are engines!

    Sounds like fun.

    Was Jim Lovell CapCom on 17?

    BTW, how far is mission control from the pad? IOW, how long does it take for the sound to reach the control centre?

  45. Nigel Depledge

    Quasar said:

    We need some kind of an encyclopedia of science(all sciences) because our sciencetific knowlege is currently scattered.

    Yeah, these exist. They are the science sections of University libraries.

    Or did you mean something a bit more concise . . . ?

  46. Nigel Depledge

    Randy A said:

    And so many of our instruments are totally cool — especially astronomy with it’s giant telescopes.

    Not too long ago I got to visit a proteomics lab at York University, where one of the techniques they use is called Surface Plasmon Resonance. Is that or is it not one of the coolest terms ever?

    Plus, I have also used data that was acquired using a Fourier Transform – Inductively Coupled Resonance Mass Spectrometer, which has a mass precision of about ±10 parts per billion.

  47. Wendy

    Beautiful message!

  48. @48. Nigel Depledge :

    Was Jim Lovell CapCom on 17?

    For Apollo 17,

    Charles Gordon Fullerton, Lt. Colonel USAF was the Landing, Launch, and Wake-up CapCom.

    Robert Allan Ridley Parker, Ph.D. civilian was the Mission Scientist and EVA CapCom.

    & …

    Joseph Percival Allen IV, Ph.D. civilian was the Goodnight CapCom.

    So, no, afraid not. :-)

    Click on my name for the source website link.

  49. thanks because of you .you made me perfect in my project in science soo thank!!!!

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