M 2 Ecology & Science
Knowledge is Power
Most people have a hard time digesting modern science because its mathematical language is difficult for our minds to grasp, and its findings often contradict common sense. Out of the 7 billion people in the world, how many really understand quantum mechanics, cell biology or macroeconomics? Science nevertheless enjoys immense prestige because of the new powers it gives us. Presidents and generals may not understand nuclear physics, but they have a good grasp of what nuclear bombs can do.
In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto tided The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.
Over the centuries, science has offered us many new tools. Some are mental tools, such as those used to predict death rates and economic growth. Even more important are technological tools. The connection forged between science and technology is so strong that today people tend to confuse the two. We often think that it is impossible to develop new technologies without scientific research, and that there is little point in research if it does not result in new technologies.
In fact, the relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally separate fields. When Bacon connected the two in the early seventeenth century, it was a revolutionary idea. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this relationship tightened, but the knot was tied only in the nineteenth century. Even in 1800, most rulers who wanted a strong army, and most business magnates who wanted a successful business, did not bother to finance research in physics, biology or economics.
I don’t mean to claim that there is no exception to this rule. A good historian can find precedent for everything. But an even better historian knows when these precedents are but curiosities that cloud the big picture. Generally speaking, most premodern rulers and business people did not finance research about the nature of the universe in order to develop new technologies, and most thinkers did not try to translate their findings into technological gadgets. Rulers financed educational institutions whose mandate was to spread traditional knowledge for the purpose of buttressing the existing order.
Here and there people did develop new technologies, but these were usually created by uneducated craftsmen using trial and error, not by scholars pursuing systematic scientific research. Cart manufacturers built the same carts from the same materials year in year out. They did not set aside a percentage of their annual profits in order to research and develop new cart models. Cart design occasionally improved, but it was usually thanks to the ingenuity of some local carpenter who never set foot in a university and did not even know how to read.
This was true of the public as well as the private sector. Whereas modern states call in their scientists to provide solutions in almost every area of national policy, from energy to health to waste disposal, ancient kingdoms seldom did so. The contrast between then and now is most pronounced in weaponry. When outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961 of the growing power of the military-industrial complex, he left out a part of the equation. He should have alerted his country to the military-industrial-scientific complex, because today’s wars are scientific productions. The world’s military forces initiate, fund and steer a large part of humanity’s scientific research and technological development.
When World War One bogged down into interminable trench warfare, both sides called in the scientists to break the deadlock and save the nation. The men in white answered the call, and out of the laboratories rolled a constant stream of new wonder-weapons: combat aircraft, poison gas, tanks, submarines and ever more efficient machine guns, artillery pieces, rifles and bombs.
Science played an even larger role in World War Two. By late 1944 Germany was losing the war and defeat was imminent. A year earlier, the Germans’ allies, the Italians, had toppled Mussolini and surrendered to the Allies. But Germany kept fighting on, even though the British, American and Soviet armies were closing in. One reason German soldiers and civilians thought not all was lost was that they believed German scientists were about to turn the tide with so-called miracle weapons such as the V-2 rocket and jet-powered aircraft.
While the Germans were working on rockets and jets, the American Manhattan Project successfully developed atomic bombs. By the time the bomb was ready, in early August 1945, Germany had already surrendered, but Japan was fighting on. American forces were poised to invade its home islands. The Japanese vowed to resist the invasion and fight to the death, and there was every reason to believe that it was no idle threat. American generals told President Harry S. Truman that an invasion of Japan would cost the lives of a million American soldiers and would extend the war well into 1946. Truman decided to use the new bomb. Two weeks and two atom bombs later, Japan surrendered unconditionally and the war was over.
But science is not just about offensive weapons. It plays a major role in our defences as well. Today many Americans believe that the solution to terrorism is technological rather than political. Just give millions more to the nanotechnology industry, they believe, and the United States could send bionic spy-flies into every Afghan cave, Yemenite redoubt and North African encampment. Once that’s done, Osama Bin Laden’s heirs will not be able to make a cup of coffee without a CIA spy-fly passing this vital information back to headquarters in Langley. Allocate millions more to brain research, and every airport could be equipped with ultra-sophisticated FMRI scanners that could immediately recognise angry and hateful thoughts in people’s brains. Will it really work? Who knows. Is it wise to develop bionic flies and thought-reading scanners? Not necessarily. Be that as it may, as you read these lines, the US Department of Defense is transferring millions of dollars to nanotechnology and brain laboratories for work on these and other such ideas.
This obsession with military technology – from tanks to atom bombs to spy-flies – is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Up until the nineteenth century, the vast majority of military revolutions were the product of organisational rather than technological changes. When alien civilisations met for the first time, technological gaps sometimes played an important role. But even in such cases, few thought of deliberately creating or enlarging such gaps. Most empires did not rise thanks to technological wizardry, and their rulers did not give much thought to technological improvement. The Arabs did not defeat the Sassanid Empire thanks to superior bows or swords, the Seljuks had no technological advantage over the Byzantines, and the Mongols did not conquer China with the help of some ingenious new weapon. In fact, in all these cases the vanquished enjoyed superior military and civilian technology.
The Roman army is a particularly good example. It was the best army of its day, yet technologically speaking, Rome had no edge over Carthage, Macedonia or the Seleucid Empire. Its advantage rested on efficient organisation, iron discipline and huge manpower reserves. The Roman army never set up a research and development department, and its weapons remained more or less the same for centuries on end. If the legions of Scipio Aemilianus – the general who levelled Carthage and defeated the Numantians in the second century BC – had suddenly popped up 500 years later in the age of Constantine the Great, Scipio would have had a fair chance of beating Constantine. Now imagine what would happen to a general from a few centuries back – say Napoleon – if he led his troops against a modern armoured brigade. Napoleon was a brilliant tactician, and his men were crack professionals, but their skills would be useless in the face of modern weaponry.
As in Rome, so also in ancient China: most generals and philosophers did not think it their duty to develop new weapons. The most important military invention in the history of China was gunpowder. Yet to the best of our knowledge, gunpowder was invented accidentally, by Daoist alchemists searching for the elixir of life. Gunpowder’s subsequent career is even more telling. One might have thought that the Daoist alchemists would have made China master of the world. In fact, the Chinese used the new compound mainly for firecrackers. Even as the Song Empire collapsed in the face of a Mongol invasion, no emperor set up a medieval Manhattan Project to save the empire by inventing a doomsday weapon. Only in the fifteenth century – about 600 years after the invention of gunpowder – did cannons become a decisive factor on Afro-Asian battlefields. Why did it take so long for the deadly potential of this substance to be put to military use? Because it appeared at a time when neither kings, scholars, nor merchants thought that new military technology could save them or make them rich.
The situation began to change in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but another 200 years went by before most rulers evinced any interest in financing the research and development of new weapons. Logistics and strategy continued to have far greater impact on the outcome of wars than technology. The Napoleonic military machine that crushed the armies of the European powers at Austerlitz (1805) was armed with more or less the same weaponry that the army of Louis XVI had used. Napoleon himself, despite being an artilleryman, had little interest in new weapons, even though scientists and inventors tried to persuade him to fund the development of flying machines, submarines and rockets. Science, industry and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the Industrial Revolution. Once this relationship was established, however, it quickly transformed the world.
Chapter 14: Knowledge is Power
Science changed this. Modern-day science openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions. Scientists admit that we do not know how brains produce consciousness or what caused the Big Bang. Instead of studying old traditions, science looks at new observations and experiments for answers.
In 1620, Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto called The New Instrument. In it he argued that knowledge is power because it empowers us, not because it is true. Scientists don’t assume their theories are 100 percent correct – truth is a poor test of knowledge anyway. The real test is how useful the knowledge is. A theory that help you do new things constitutes knowledge.
World War One was decided not by the best soldiers, but the most dangerous scientists. Combat aircraft, poison gas, tanks, submarines and ever more efficient machine guns, artillery pieces, rifles and bombs were the real stars of war.
Science was even more important in World War Two. The Germans were nearly defeated until the promise of the V-2 rocket and jet-powered aircraft brought new hope that things may turn around. But during the same time, the Manhattan project by the U.S produced the atomic bomb. By the time the atomic bomb was ready, Germany had surrendered.
But Japan, Germany’s ally at the time refused to surrender. A U.S invasion of Japan would cost the U.S millions of lives and a lot of time and resources. Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb twice in two weeks. The Japanese then surrendered, and the war was over.
The short story "A White Heron" by Sarah Orne Jewett. Dona de Sanctis wrote this version for VOA Learning English.
The forest was full of shadows as a little girl hurried through it one summer evening in June. It was already 8 o'clock and Sylvie wondered if her grandmother would be angry with her for being so late.
Every evening Sylvie left her grandmother's house at 5:30 to bring their cow home. The old animal spent her days out in the open country eating sweet grass. It was Sylvie's job to bring her home to be milked. When the cow heard Sylvie's voice calling her, she would hide among the bushes.
This evening it had taken Sylvie longer than usual to find her cow. The child hurried the cow through the dark forest, following a narrow path that led to her grandmother's home. The cow stopped at a small stream to drink. As Sylvie waited, she put her bare feet in the cold, fresh water of the stream.
She had never before been alone in the forest as late as this. The air was soft and sweet. Sylvie felt as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the silver leaves that moved in the evening breeze.
She began thinking how it was only a year ago that she came to her grandmother's farm. Before that, she had lived with her mother and father in a dirty, crowded factory town. One day, Sylvie's grandmother had visited them and had chosen Sylvie from all her brothers and sisters to be the one to help her on her farm in Vermont.
The cow finished drinking, and as the 9-year-old child hurried through the forest to the home she loved, she thought again about the noisy town where her parents still lived.
Suddenly the air was cut by a sharp whistle not far away. Sylvie knew it wasn't a friendly bird's whistle. It was the determined whistle of a person. She forgot the cow and hid in some bushes. But she was too late.
"Hello, little girl," a young man called out cheerfully. "How far is it to the main road?" Sylvie was trembling as she whispered "two miles." She came out of the bushes and looked up into the face of a tall young man carrying a gun.
The stranger began walking with Sylvie as she followed her cow through the forest. "I've been hunting for birds," he explained, "but I've lost my way. Do you think I can spend the night at your house?" Sylvie didn't answer. She was glad they were almost home. She could see her grandmother standing near the door of the farm house.
When they reached her, the stranger put down his gun and explained his problem to Sylvie's smiling grandmother.
"Of course you can stay with us," she said. "We don't have much, but you're welcome to share what we have. Now Sylvie, get a plate for the gentleman!"
After eating, they all sat outside. The young man explained he was a scientist, who collected birds. "Do you put them in a cage?" Sylvie asked. "No," he answered slowly, "I shoot them and stuff them with special chemicals to preserve them. I have over 100 different kinds of birds from all over the United States in my study at home."
"Sylvie knows a lot about birds, too," her grandmother said proudly. "She knows the forest so well, the wild animals come and eat bread right out of her hands."
"So Sylvie knows all about birds. Maybe she can help me then," the young man said. "I saw a white heron not far from here two days ago. I've been looking for it ever since. It's a very rare bird, the little white heron. Have you seen it, too?" he asked Sylvie.
But Sylvie was silent. "You would know it if you saw it," he added. "It's a tall, strange bird with soft white feathers and long thin legs. It probably has its nest at the top of a tall tree."
Sylvie's heart began to beat fast. She knew that strange white bird! She had seen it on the other side of the forest. The young man was staring at Sylvie. "I would give $10 to the person who showed me where the white heron is."
That night Sylvie's dreams were full of all the wonderful things she and her grandmother could buy for ten dollars.
Sylvie spent the next day in the forest with the young man. He told her a lot about the birds they saw. Sylvie would have had a much better time if the young man had left his gun at home. She could not understand why he killed the birds he seemed to like so much. She felt her heart tremble every time he shot an unsuspecting bird as it was singing in the trees.
But Sylvie watched the young man with eyes full of admiration. She had never seen anyone so handsome and charming. A strange excitement filled her heart, a new feeling the little girl did not recognize … love.
At last evening came. They drove the cow home together. Long after the moon came out and the young man had fallen asleep Sylvie was still awake. She had a plan that would get the $10 for her grandmother and make the young man happy. When it was almost time for the sun to rise, she quietly left her house and hurried through the forest. She finally reached a huge pine tree, so tall it could be seen for many miles around. Her plan was to climb to the top of the pine tree. She could see the whole forest from there. She was sure she would be able to see where the white heron had hidden its nest.
Sylvie's bare feet and tiny fingers grabbed the tree's rough trunk. Sharp dry branches scratched at her like cat's claws. The pine tree's sticky sap made her fingers feel stiff and clumsy as she climbed higher and higher.
The pine tree seemed to grow taller, the higher that Sylvie climbed. The sky began to brighten in the east. Sylvie's face was like a pale star when, at last, she reached the tree's highest branch. The golden sun's rays hit the green forest. Two hawks flew together in slow-moving circles far below Sylvie. Sylvie felt as if she could go flying among the clouds, too. To the west she could see other farms and forests.
Suddenly Sylvie's dark gray eyes caught a flash of white that grew larger and larger. A bird with broad white wings and a long slender neck flew past Sylvie and landed on a pine branch below her. The white heron smoothed its feathers and called to its mate, sitting on their nest in a nearby tree. Then it lifted its wings and flew away.
Sylvie gave a long sigh. She knew the wild bird's secret now. Slowly she began her dangerous trip down the ancient pine tree. She did not dare to look down and tried to forget that her fingers hurt and her feet were bleeding. All she wanted to think about was what the stranger would say to her when she told him where to find the heron's nest.
As Sylvie climbed slowly down the pine tree, the stranger was waking up back at the farm. He was smiling because he was sure from the way the shy little girl had looked at him that she had seen the white heron.
About an hour later Sylvie appeared. Both her grandmother and the young man stood up as she came into the kitchen. The splendid moment to speak about her secret had come. But Sylvie was silent. Her grandmother was angry with her. Where had she been? The young man's kind eyes looked deeply into Sylvie's own dark gray ones. He could give Sylvie and her grandmother $10 dollars. He had promised to do this, and they needed the money. Besides, Sylvie wanted to make him happy.
But Sylvie was silent. She remembered how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sun rise together from the top of the world. Sylvie could not speak. She could not tell the heron's secret and give its life away.
The young man went away disappointed later that day. Sylvie was sad. She wanted to be his friend. He never returned. But many nights Sylvie heard the sound of his whistle as she came home with her grandmother's cow.
Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been? Who can know?
The Fish - Elizabeth Bishop
“The Fish”(poem) - Elizabeth Bishop
The Fish - Elizabeth Bishop - 1911-1979
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Bishop. Reprinted from Poems with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Everything I Need to Know I learned in the Forest