Introduction: 1950–present

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Introduction: 1950–present


The second half of the twentieth century saw the most rapid increase in scientific knowledge of any time in history. Particularly amazing progress was made in genetics and biotechnology, computer technology, astronomy, and medical science. By the turn of the century, a greater fraction of the population used, developed, and relied on science and technology than ever before, and people increasingly looked to science and technology for answers to their most pressing questions. There were problems, however. Larger and more powerful nuclear weapons, devastating industrial accidents, and environmental degradation showed that no blessing is unmixed.

Despite its many advantages, technology's dark side and its ominous achievements made many people fear that it threatened the future of both humanity and the Earth. This is one of the fundamental dichotomies of the period. The other is that although increasingly driven by scientific and technological advances, the era was marked by a renewed interest in religion and a groundswell of anti-technology sentiment. This is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of the fact that science and technology, by themselves, are neither good nor evil, but can be used for both.

Emerging technologies also strained social relations. Many worried that an increasingly high-tech world would cease to value people as individuals. The wealth and opportunity enjoyed by people of the First World were often resented by their less-advanced and less-developed counterparts in the Third World. Finally, many felt that science and religion were mutually exclusive, and that embracing one meant rejecting the other. These tensions—technology versus conservation, science versus religion, progress versus individuality, rich nations versus poor undeveloped countries—shaped the world in which we live, and will continue to influence the future.

In the developed world technology and science have become almost indistinguishably woven into our daily lives and our society. Their increasing presence is reflected in newspaper and television reports. Science fiction is routinely popular, as evidenced by Andromeda Strain, Coma, and Outbreak, to name only a few. Computers, which have revolutionized all sectors of society, are themselves both vehicles for entertainment and ubiquitous and valuable tools. Even the movies reflect our fascination with and fear of technology: Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, and Failsafe. Concern about nuclear testing produced Godzilla, Spiderman, and the giant ants of Them.

Looking Back at 1900-1949

At the end of the nineteenth century scientists were beginning to believe that there was little left to learn. The basic laws of nature had been determined and all that remained was to tie up a few niggling loose ends and then refine the calculation of some physical constants more precisely. As it turned out, tying up those loose ends led to a revolution in physics, new theories about atomic structure, a better understanding of the Earth's age, knowledge of how stars produce energy, how atoms and molecules bond to form chemicals, and much more. It is safe to say that the scientific discoveries of the first part of the twentieth century made possible the incredible technological advances of the century's second half. It is entirely possible that the scientific discoveries of the first half of the century are more remarkable, in the context of their times, than those of the second half because, in many instances, they were fundamental discoveries that completely changed the way we view the universe. On the other hand, these discoveries were not fully appreciated at the time, and it was left to more recent scientists to explain, understand, and capitalize on the discoveries made between 1900 and 1949.

1950-present: Understanding Ourselves, Our Planet and the Universe

If early twentieth-century science produced new scientific and conceptual tools, they were put to work in the second half of the century. These tools were used to design new experiments and techniques with which to probe ever deeper into the science that underlies our world. In other cases, the scientific concepts themselves helped forge a better understanding of the universe. In these explorations, we looked both inward and outward, and what we saw in either direction has had a profound and indelible impact on our society.

Looking Inward

Early in the century, researchers realized that genes explained the patterns in inherited traits. At first, however, they believed that nucleic acids were not sufficiently complex to convey this bewildering amount of information from generation to generation. James Watson and Francis Crick, by showing how DNA was organized, proved that the nucleic acids could, and did, carry this information. The paper they wrote announcing their discovery was not even two pages in length, but it was sufficient to win the Nobel Prize, and it set the stage for everything that was to follow.

Since then, molecular biology, genetics, and molecular genetics have given rise to the field of biotechnology and a far better understanding of how the living world works. Scientists can now add new genes to bacteria, allowing them to make drugs such as insulin or interferon cheaply and efficiently. Genetic engineering is beginning to change agriculture. Studies of the human genome have led to a deeper and more detailed understanding of certain diseases.

These amazing advances are not universally welcomed, however. Some people worry about the safety of genetically engineered foods because scientists have mixed genes from different organisms in ways that were not previously possible, and the ecological impact of these manipulations is not always certain. Progress in human genetics has raised fears that insurance companies might refuse to insure people with genetic markers for certain diseases, citing them as preexisting conditions. Other remarkable developments include synthetic hormones, artificial genes, DNA "fingerprinting" techniques, and an understanding of how cells generate energy. All influence our search to understand life on Earth. The implications of each innovation are hotly debated, as are issues surrounding cloning, gene therapy, and other advances made possible by our increasing knowledge of genetics and biology.

Medical advances have been equally significant. New surgical techniques let us transplant organs from one person to another and, in some cases, from one species to another. Surgical lasers help diagnose and treat diseases from hyperthyroidism to cancer. People routinely receive artificial replacement parts when their bones, joints, and heart valves wear out. The development of oral contraceptives gave us not only control of our population but the sexual revolution, which, in turn, may have contributed to a resurgence in sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, herpes, and others.

Looking Outward

Science also made tremendous strides toward understanding the Earth and the universe during this time. The discovery of plate tectonics led to a grand synthesis and explanation of many puzzling discoveries in geology, paleontology, and evolutionary studies, letting us see the Earth as a dynamic, living planet that is constantly changing and evolving. Exploration of the solar system by orbital telescopes and space probes showed us planets and satellites much different from the small, blurred, featureless images seen by groundbased instruments. Meanwhile, astronomers discovered new worlds around other stars. We now have a reasonably good understanding of how stars are born, evolve, and die, and have seen how galaxies form. The COBE orbital observatory has seen echoes of the birth of the universe, confirming that everything we see was formed in a Big Bang billions of years ago. Studies of the Big Bang, in turn, lead us back to particle physics in a sort of physics "great circle," and advances in this arena have been equally profound.

Threatening the World

Hans Bethe's discovery of stellar energy sources also helped design more efficient fusion bombs. Albert Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2 helped explain certain facts about the universe, but it also helped us build an atomic bomb. Similarly, the discovery and increasing use of fossil fuels made life immeasurably easier, but it also led to oil spills, fears of global warming, and environmental damage. Virtually every scientific discovery is examined by the military to see if it could become a new weapon or improve an existing one. For the first time in history, man has the ability to wipe out every person on Earth and, at the same time, render the planet uninhabitable for any life more complex than a lichen. This realization has led to increasingly vocal environmentalism, a great deal of legislation, many international agreements, and a fervor in the media. Some wish to use the technology that created these problems to fix them; others would rather turn back the clock to a simpler and presumably better time. The solution to these problems will almost certainly be found in more technological discovery, not less.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The rapid progress in science and technology has led to some remarkable rifts, many that need not exist. There is no need, for example, to have to choose between religious belief and scientific fact. Indeed, most religious leaders and scientists manage to believe in both. Similarly, while technology currently seems to exacerbate the differences between the rich and the poor, there is no reason it cannot be used to help the poor advance economically. And, while many of our environmental problems may be due to technology, the same technology can be used to both extend human life and to make that life richer and more meaningful. Technology is morally neutral. Only the purposes to which it is put can be good or evil. Perhaps the largest challenge the future holds lies in improving humans, not in restricting technology.


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Introduction: 1950–present

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Introduction: 1950–present