What I’m Thankful For: The Science and Technology Edition

By Corey S. Powell | November 26, 2015 3:16 pm
Ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, and enigmatic flows on Pluto--just one small sample of the magical images returned by the New Horizons probe this past year. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, and enigmatic flows on Pluto–just one small sample of the inspirational images returned by the New Horizons probe this past year. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

It can feel inappropriate celebrating the exploration of the universe while the media are saturated with grim stories about warfare, terrorism, and other forms of human suffering. The issue boils down to matters of sensitivity and propriety: How can you talk about something so theoretical and remote when there are so many problems all around us? I wrote a column on this theme last year, and it feels especially timely right now as I (like so many other Americans) am stepping back to think about the things I’m thankful for.

What really struck me from that perspective was the sense of progress: The old-fashioned sense of forward motion through history, from less civilized to more, toward a better and more fulfilling lifestyle for all of humanity. It is easy to lose sight of the pattern while being barraged by news stories that give the impression we are living in the worst time ever–but by most measures, we are living in the best time ever. I’m not talking just about scientific exploration (in which 2015 witnessed historic explorations the small worlds Pluto and Ceres), but also about the overall quality of human life. Both are getting better and better, and the reasons why are intertwined.

You may be skeptical, so let’s look at some hard statistics. First, the overall state of conflict. Just to be clear, every death is loss, and every battle or attack is horrific. But the long-term trend is cause for optimism. The data here are compiled by Max Roser; follow this link for information about the sources.

War

You have probably heard a lot this past year about the “war on police.” Again, I do not mean to make light of any individual incident (and note that I am not showing the flip-side statistics on the number of people killed by police officers, because no reliable statistics exist–a serious problem in itself). But also again, the trend is surprisingly positive. Look at the dramatic drop since the 1970s. Data via AEI, with more information here.

police1

In one of the most important measures of human health and well-being–infant mortality–the trend lines are especially encouraging, with stubborn inequality but steady improvements all around the globe. Data via UN World Population Prospects.

Infant_Mortality_Rates_-_1950-2010

There is no big secret about the reasons for these changes. Science and technology have improved health care and led to a rising standard of living in almost all parts of the world. Healthier, wealthier families can devote more resources to each child. And even though technology has had the capacity to make warfare more deadly, it has paradoxically tended (with some obvious big exceptions) to make the world less violent.

Science has made human life better, and vastly expanded our knowledge of our place in the larger reality. I cannot document it in chart form, but I am quite certain that inspiring images of discovery have helped create a happier and more peaceful world. Gazing a an image of nitrogen glaciers flowing down ice mountains on Pluto sums up, in one picture, the grand potential of the human mind. It give us something we can all share: an understanding of the universe that belongs to everyone, that is an inexhaustible resource.

Consider what our species is doing in space right now:

"What's Up in the Solar System," an infographic from the Planetary Society.

“What’s Up in the Solar System,” an infographic created by Olaf Frohn of The Planetary Society.

There are many more grand adventures just ahead. NASA is hard at work on the James Webb Space Telescope (a successor to Hubble), and TESS (another space observatory specifically designed to find worlds around other stars). Upcoming missions will bring back pieces of asteroids, hunt signs of life on the ice moon Europa, and accelerate the search for gravitational waves.

The reach of the human mind keeps advancing. And for that I am truly, deeply thankful.

Follow me on Twitter for more about the journey of science: @coreyspowell

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  • OWilson

    Didn’t you forget about “The Greatest Threat To Mankind”?

    They tell us we are facing an “Unprecedented Extinction Event”.

    • Kyle

      We are “facing it”. We aren’t anticipating it. It’s been underway for a long time. Human activity has increased the extinction rate by orders of magnitude over the background rate.

      Facts. Get some.

      • OWilson

        Here’s one for ya!

        “The New ‘Consensus’: 97 Percent Of Americans Aren’t Worried About Global Warming” – Poll

        Consistent with it’s absence from the above article, which discusses real threats to the real world. :)

  • Mike Richardson

    I’m thankful that more people than ever have come to understand the benefits of a scientific worldview. This year has certainly shown us amazing images from the far corner of our solar system, even as here on this planet, it has become abundantly clear the impact that human activity has had on the climate and global environment. And thankfully, with a few notable exceptions, more people are accepting this windfall of knowledge, rather than dismissing it because it clashes with their religious or ideological views.

  • OWilson

    On a serious note, it is certainly not “inappropriate” to celebrate the technological achievements of mankind, even if they do emanate mostly from that great Satan, Western Capitalism.

    One can hope that in the end it will be technology that gets us through the many other threats civilisation faces.

    I join you in giving thanks for the major trends shown in your charts above.

    I would only add the following:

    Leprosy, plague, small pox, polio, have all been virtually eradicated, and humans are experiencing more health, longevity, clean air and water than ever before in our history.

    World agricultural production continues to set records.

    The planet is well.

    As usual, it’s the lying and thieving corrupt politicians who are today’s primary existential threat!

    • coreyspowell

      Well, there certainly is a chronic problem of people who are not willing to pay their fair share to keep the progress going. All advances–whether it is space exploration, public health, or simply the infrastructure of a smoothly functioning civil society–require investment. A lot of people these days want the benefits without the cost, a myopic and self-absorbed attitude that could threaten continued gains.

      • OWilson

        The Founding Fathers warned against the one big flaw in a their democracy.

        That a government could bribe the electorate, and stay in power by looting the treasury.

        They observed that an aggressive and free press was the only defense against such an outcome.

        But guaranteed the right of a well ordered armed militia to deal with such an eventuality.

        How wise they were!

        • coreyspowell

          So…the way to bring down the deficit is to stage an armed march on Washington, DC? I’m concerned about spending priorities, but not THAT concerned!

          • OWilson

            If regular folks understood what that out of control, unrestrained spiraling debt is doing to their children and grandchildren’s future, you would not only have a walk on Washington D.C., but an armed insurrection.

            History is rife with the inevitable scenarios when a country runs out of money to pay it’s cradle to grave welfare bills. It’s happening today in Europe.

            Heck, they loot and burn your cities on far less provocation.

            To get back on topic I can only hope that the derision, arrows and slings, folks like me have to endure by pointing out real “inconvenient truths”, will eventually subside as people become aware of how they are manipulated by their politicians, who spend the first 2 years rewarding and appointing their campaign staff, and the next two years planning their re-election.

          • Mike Richardson

            Oh, we’ve got armed insurrectionists. Here in Louisiana, in the last year, a rather politically active fellow shot up at theater in Lafayette (one guess which side of the political spectrum he fell on — something in common with the next guy). Then a week ago, it was a Planned Parenthood clinic. Today, what exactly was the motivation in California? But yes, we’ve got plenty of armed and angry citizens, and see how well that’s turning out. Not something for which I’m particularly thankful, to keep things somewhat on topic.

          • OWilson

            If you do not understand the motivation in for the California incident, I can not help you.

            You can blame “workplace violence”,” lack of economic opportunity”, or even a “YouTube video”, if it makes you feel better.

            If people like you in government don’t see where the real threat is coming from (hint: It ain’t me in Canada, your duly elected Republicans, or even the weather) then armed citizens will protect themselves, it is a right guaranteed under your Constitution.

            Now close your eyes and cover your ears,

            “RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISTS”

          • Mike Richardson

            “Armed citizens,” — more guns are the answer right? So if a person is drowning in a swimming pool, is your answer to flood the thing with even more water? And you completely ignored the other two examples I gave, which have nothing to do with Islamic terrorism. Did Islamic terrorists shoot up Columbine? The theater in Colorado? The elementary school in Connecticut? Yep, the problem’s just Islamic terrorists, not easy access to assault rifles and other semi-automatic weapons, large ammunition magazines and Kevlar piercing rounds, and this notion that any problem can be solved with enough guns. Now that particular viewpoint is low info if there ever was one.

          • OWilson

            That’s an amazingly low info post.

            If bad people want guns, bombs, knives they will get them, even if the Walmart sports counter is closed down.

            Look up “arms dealers”. Matter of fact look up “Fast and Furious” and you will see that your government equipped a whole army of drug dealers who used them to kill our agents.

            Taking them away from innocent civilians, who have a constitutional right to protect themselves and their families, them will never stop crime or terrorism.

            But it will accelerate the agenda for those who are determined to kill Western Capitalism at it’s source, America. That, as always includes communists, and islamists.

            (But not quite yet, Comrade Hossein, and not without a fight) :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Well, there are gun free zones, and there are fact, logic, and reason free zones, as you demonstrated in your post above. I believe Einstein once said the definition of insanity was trying the same thing over again, and expecting a different result. Nations that have stricter gun laws, by and large, don’t have these kinds of mass shootings (now occurring pretty much daily here). However, as the NRA has made sure that even people on terrorist watch lists can by assault rifles (through their paid lackeys in Congress, such as Paul Ryan), we’ve had ever escalating death tolls from gun violence in this nation. Fact. But completely irrelevant to you, and hardly surprising, as you’ve disregarded facts on every other subject that contradict a radical right wing view of the world. While you fear all of the “others” out there, those of us who prefer not to give in to delusional thinking have to confront the fact that it can be people just like us on a bad day who take our lives at random, thanks to the fact that virtually anyone can own a mass killing weapon. I acknowledge that fact, but I don’t accept that it cannot be changed. And I am thankful that I’m not alone in taking this reality-based approach to addressing our problems. Pleasant evening, “comrade.” 😉

          • OWilson

            Interesting term you use, “lackeys”, comrade.

            Not used much these days, except in communist clicques, cadres and other left wing political talking points.

            Is that lackeys as in “Imperialistic reactionary, contemptible bourgiosie lackeys”?

          • Mike Richardson

            Lol… that’s funny, you referring to someone else’s use of a term you think is stereotyped by political ideologues. Don’t look in a mirror much, eh? Gotta love the irony.

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Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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