Science for development | Sunday Observer

Science for development

A Steam train in action
A Steam train in action

At first glance, science may not seem to have any connection to peace and development. But, when you think deeper, science can be seen as a tool for peace and development. The UN even declared a day that brings all three together, to signify their importance to mankind.

Celebrated every November 10, World Science Day for Peace and Development highlights the significant role of science in society and the need to engage the wider public in debates on emerging scientific issues. It also underlines the importance and relevance of science in our daily lives. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, science is intricately involved with every minute of our lives.

By linking science more closely with society, World Science Day for Peace and Development aims at ensuring that people around the world are kept informed of developments in science. It also underscores the role scientists play in broadening our understanding of the fragile planet we call home and in making our societies more sustainable.

The Day offers the opportunity to mobilize all actors around the topic of science for peace and development – from government officials, to the media, to school pupils. The objectives of World Science Day for Peace and Development are to: Strengthen public awareness on the role of science for peaceful and sustainable societies; Promote national and international solidarity for shared science between countries, renew national and international commitment for the use of science for the benefit of societies and draw attention to the challenges faced by science and raise support for scientific endeavour.

The sub theme for 2018 is “Science, a Human Right” in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers. Recalling that everyone has a right to participate in and benefit from science, it will serve to spark a global discussion on ways to improve access to science and to the benefits of science for sustainable development. Since its proclamation by UNESCO in 2001, World Science Day for Peace and Development has generated many concrete projects, programs and funding for science around the world. The Day has also helped foster cooperation between scientists living in regions marred by conflict.

The rationale of celebrating a World Science Day for Peace and Development has its roots in the importance of the role of science and scientists for sustainable societies and in the need to inform and involve citizens in science. In this sense, a World Science Day for Peace and Development would offer an opportunity to show the public the relevance of science in their lives and to engage them in discussions.

Science has been the source for food, for centuries, when ancient physicians discovered plants that can heal certain diseases. The wheel is often hailed as Mankind’s biggest scientific invention, while fire is thought of as the greatest discovery. There is a distinct difference between the two – a discovery is finding out about a mainly natural phenomenon but an invention is an instrument made by Man which may or may not use a discovery as its base.

The English word scientist is relatively recent—first coined by William Whewell in the 19th century. Previously, investigators of nature called themselves “natural philosophers”. Leonardo Da Vinci was a true scientist in that sense of the word, having drawn conceptual drawings of future vehicles such as helicopters centuries before they were actually invented. But, it is generally acknowledged that modern science began to be developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, mainly in Europe, though many inventions from gunpowder to paper had originated in China thousands of years earlier. Scientific knowledge can broadly be categorized into theoretical and practical sectors – sometimes theory has been turned into practice and practical gadgets.

For example, the fact that steam should be able to propel a mass was well known for some time in scientific circles. In fact, the concept of a steam engine pre-dates modern engines by a couple of thousand years, as mathematician and engineer Heron of Alexandria, who lived in Roman Egypt during the first century, was the first to describe a rudimentary version he named the Aeolipile. Along the way, a number of leading scientists toyed with the idea of using the force generated by heating water to power a machine of some sort. Da Vinci himself drew up designs for a steam powered cannon called the Architonnerre, sometime during the 15th century. A basic steam turbine was also detailed in papers written by the Egyptian astronomer, philosopher and engineer Taqi ad-Din in 1551. The first rudimentary steam engine was invented in 1698 by English military engineer Thomas Savery. This was further improved by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and in 1769 by James Watt, who designed a separate condenser connected to a cylinder by a valve. Unlike Newcomen’s engine, Watt’s design had a condenser that could be cool while the cylinder was hot. Eventually, Watt’s engine would become the dominant design for all modern steam engines and helped bring about the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine was the precursor to modern electric railways that can go as fast as 350 Km/h. This is just one discovery and invention that literally transformed our world.

But, science has also given rise to some horrendously evil inventions such as guns, other weapons and the biggest weapon of them all – the atomic bomb. Most of the scientists who had the knowledge that splitting atoms could release a massive quantum of energy along with radiation did not realise that one day that knowledge would be used to annihilate two entire cities and their population. Yet that is exactly what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, there was a silver lining in this very dark cloud – nuclear energy. Scientists realised that much the same process when done in a controlled environment could be used to generate energy, though it has pitfalls such as, a possible leak of radiation. This happened in Three Mile Island in the USA and Chernobyl in Russia.

It is much better if science can be used solely for the good of mankind. We have to find urgent solutions for issues such as Climate Change, which in a way, is also the result of scientific progress.

We have to fight disease – science is yet to find a cure for diseases such as cancer or even to invent a vaccine that can fight all varieties of flu. We might even have to find ways to leave Planet Earth if it becomes too hot to live in. Science and scientists will have to evolve answers to these issues over the next few centuries, if not decades.