Discovering Science, Inventing the Future

I recently gave a talk to the students at the Pimlico Academy about scientific discoveries and inventions. Below is an excerpt of the talk I gave:

Flint stone and Mouse

Flint stone and Mouse

Perhaps the oldest invention we can assign to our species is the flint stone. Take a close look at it. Its shape is particular. It fits snugly in one’s palm. This tool, which was most likely invented around 2.5 million years ago, closely resembles this other tool: the mouse. It is no wonder that they resemble each other. They are both designed to fit the human hand. The mouse was invented about 50 years ago. And from the flint stone right through to the mouse there is a whole universe of inventions and discoveries.

You see, everything is about change. You have to adapt to new environments, you have to evolve. You have to innovate. And this is what I want to talk to you about today: innovation. But more importantly, I want to take you on this journey through scientific discoveries and inventions. Whereas innovation allows you to step through the changes, inventions and discoveries are the changes themselves.

From Bell to iPhone

From Bell to iPhone

Roughly a century separates the invention of the first practical telephone by Alexander Graham Bell and the first hand-held mobile phone. One hundred years from an invention to an innovation. From 1870s to 1970s. That’s how long it took to innovate this communication tool. The smart phones we have nowadays are but instances of those innovations. To invent something new altogether is not as straightforward as it may seem.

As for discoveries, they tend to happen more by accident than by design. Most of the time, you don’t go about looking for something new; you simply tread along the paths laid down by those who came before you until you stumble on something new. Something no one has paid attention to before. Something everyone has taken for granted. Something only you could have noticed because you were in the right frame of mind, in the right zone, at the right place and the right time. Which means there is a portion of luck that comes into play. But luck is futile if knowledge is missing. You have to know what you’re looking at to be able to spot the unusual, the unseen, the unknown.

Inside the Large Hadron Collider

Inside the Large Hadron Collider

We all remember – or at least we should if we have been following the news – the discovery of the Higgs boson last year in July. But does anyone of you remember when the electron was discovered? No? I wouldn’t think so. That was about 116 years ago. None of us using smart phones today will have any recollection of that event. Yet it would have been impossible, back then in 1896, to imagine that the discovery of this tiniest of particles will one day lead to the dawn of electronics and eventually computers and smart phones. What the discovery of the electron has done is open up the doors to yet many more theories, discoveries and inventions which, over merely a century, have completely changed the face of the world.

The relevance of a scientific discovery might not be that obvious. It might take a generation or even centuries before we appreciate its full-fledged importance. What we must learn from past inventions and discoveries is that their contribution to society cannot be measured in numbers and cannot have a price-tag. We might be investing billions of dollars and decades of hard work in an experiment but the payoff is truly priceless. Experiments being carried out at CERN – where the Higgs boson was discovered – to try to unravel the fabric of the universe involve massive investments whether in terms of financial costs, years of labour and political will. Besides the discovery of the Higgs boson, numerous other discoveries and ideas have sprouted (either directly or indirectly) from CERN. The invention of the World Wide Web is one of them. Again, if you’ve been watching the news, you’ll know that Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his invention of the World Wide Web. To dismiss such experiments as being expensive or irrelevant is to be shortsighted.

I can give you a list of a thousand and one discoveries and inventions that have changed the world; that have increased our average lifespan from a few decades to over a hundred years by providing us with better food, cures and advanced medical services; that have allowed us to use better materials; that have enabled us to harness energy from different sources and thus sustain life in an ever-expanding world. The benefits are countless.

DNA - Darwin - Quantum Physics - Periodic Table - Einstein - Lavoisier

DNA – Darwin – Quantum Physics – Periodic Table – Einstein – Lavoisier

But none of the above would be conceivable unless we possess the most fundamental of qualities. Curiosity. We are all naturally curious. We like to explore, to peek into the unknown, to seek new life. This is precisely what Curiosity – the amazing rover we have sent on Mars – is doing. It’s exploring Mars and studying its features. Who knows, we might discover something exciting about that planet. For instance, we already know there used to be life on Mars. But imagine we discover the remnants of a once flourishing life-form. Wouldn’t that be awesome!

Exploring Mars

Exploring Mars

It is this sense of curiosity that we have to nurture. We have to feed this curiosity; this fire burning inside us. And teachers have a huge responsibility in making sure that this flame never goes out. If anything, they have to fan the flame so that you, the lights of the future, can shine in whatever you do. Our teachers are a source of inspiration. And inspiration plus dedication is what lead to discoveries and inventions.

This brings me to point I want to make: Good education leads to expertise; expertise leads to innovative industries; industries lead to booming businesses; business leads to a healthy economy; economy attracts more investments and financing; finance leads to creating new industries, new research centres, grants and scholarships for universities, funding for cutting-edge technology like NASA and CERN where new discoveries are made and where inventions are born; and ultimately this leads to development in off-shoot sectors like health care, materials, telecommunication, energy, transport, food etc. And in turn this inspires the next generation of students for they are exposed to the new technologies and awe-inspiring discoveries and achievements. This is the kind of society we should strive for. But it all begins with education.

I would urge you all to focus on your scientific studies for they allow you to navigate the ever-changing world. But more importantly, they give you the means to contribute to this world. They give you the knowledge and skills to become experts, to create, to innovate, to invent and to discover. Whether it is within the field of engineering or arts or finance, what matters is how we apply the methods of scientific thinking in whatever we do; what matters is to think like a scientist, if not act like one.

Yes, we have discoveries and inventions in other fields as well – I don’t deny this at all. But we can honestly say that those discoveries and inventions which have had the most impact on the world have come from science.

I was asked to provide a title for this talk and I came up with this: ‘Discovering Science and Inventing the Future’. I couldn’t find something more fitting than this. We badly need more scientifically literate graduates in this country to boost the economy. We need you to see the relevance of science in our everyday life. We need you to be part of this global enterprise of science and engineering. For this is how you will be able to invent the future. Who knows, one of you here today might discover a cure for cancer or invent a new programming language. Whatever it may be, what more exciting is there than to inspire those around you with your ideas, your inventions and your discoveries?

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