Nobel Laureate Dr. Lee Hartwell spoke to students on the first morning of the five-day Amrita-DST INSPIRE camp. The session set the tone for all invited talks and hands-on activities that followed. Given below are some excerpts from Dr. Hartwell’s highly acclaimed talk.
I will give you a short talk about the opportunities that I believe are appearing in science for the younger generation.
Science seeks to understand the rules by which things interact. I will give you a very simple example. Consider the sun, the earth and the moon. They rotate around one another and they interact by the force of gravity. By studying the details of that interaction, mapping it for hundreds of years, scientists and astronomers have found the rules according to which the earth rotates around the sun and the moon rotates around the earth.
So what science seeks to do is identify the rules. If we really understand the rules, then we can make predictions about the future and that’s the test of whether we understand something correctly. With respect to the sun, earth and moon, we can predict eclipses, we can predict solar and lunar eclipses with accuracy. This shows us that the rules that we have written about how these objects interact with one another are quite accurate.
I want to talk about a new science that is appearing for this new generation, which is very important at a most fundamental level. It is the science of how people interact with the earth. As human beings, we get all of our food and water from the earth, our other needs are also provided by the earth. Our energy comes from the sun which helps with the growth of plants; we eat the plants, animals eat the plants; we eat the animals. Everything we need for our life comes ultimately from the earth and from the energy that’s coming to the earth from the sun.
It is extremely important that we understand in much greater detail how we people interact with the earth, because this is a unique time in human history. With this generation, for the first time, we have reached the limits of the earth’s capacity to support people. There is a group that calculates the ecological footprint of humanity and what it does is, it looks at crop land that’s been used in the world, it looks at the use of fresh water and fisheries, it looks at forest land and it looks at the area that is being used for cities.
At this critical time with seven billion people on the planet, we are using almost all of the earth’s capacity to support people, and yet there are more people coming. We expect that in the next forty years, within this century, population will increase by another three billion, that is almost a fifty percent increase. There aren’t enough resources to support such an increase.
Not only is this a problem but also the current use of the earth resources is very unequal. So some people, like those of us in the US and in Europe use a lot of the earth’s resources. Most people in India and other Asian countries and particularly in Africa use a small amount of the earth’s resources. The science that seeks to deal with these complex issues is relatively new. It is called sustainability science. It seeks to understand both how the earth works and how we can be more responsible in using the earth’s resources.
This is little bit different kind of science; it’s different in many ways. First, it’s different because it’s so complex. We talk about all of the planet resources, we talk about fresh water, we talk about the atmosphere and pollution, and we talk about climate change that is occurring as a result of faster fuel utilization. These are all very complex subjects. Of course, even more complex is how we, as human beings make decisions, how we can began to utilize the earth’s resources more effectively. These are very complicated things and that’s the science your generation have to deal with. How can we interact effectively as people with resources of the earth when our demand on those resources is ever increasing?
We will have only two choices. We either have to become more efficient in how we use resources or we will have to create technologies to provide new resources. People have done this over the course of history. The advances in science and technology first created the agricultural revolution. Now we are able to supply food for everyone on earth with only a few percent of the population being farmers. The rest of the people do other things.
With the industrial revolution, there was a huge technological advance wherein machines enabled us to have massive amounts of work done. The biggest change came due to the use of fossil fuel, the discovery of oil, gas and coal, by which we built a civilization that depends entirely on those energy sources. We are also running out of these sources of energy. The fact is that we are currently at the peak of the earth’s capacity to provide oil. We are going to eventually run out of all fossil fuels.
So one of the huge challenges in science for your generation will be to discover new energy sources that can be used. Can we find energy sources that don’t pollute the atmosphere and don’t create climate change? Directly using sunlight, water power, geo thermal power, wind power, these are some examples. How can you harness these energy sources in large enough capacities to meet your needs in the future? Those are the really big questions.
One key to making scientific breakthroughs is to ask the right question. In this case, I don’t know what the right question is. Your generation is going to have to find out.
What is the question that needs to be asked? The right question about our future, about how we are going to sustain life on this planet for ourselves and make it more equitable, so that everyone had access to resources. In addition to asking the right question, there is an another thing that needs to be done in science, and that is making the right measurement. Science depends on measuring things and using those measurements to test our predictions and answer our questions.
Let me give you an example. It seems so miraculous, lets think about how organisms supply their needs by eating. Some organisms eat plants, some eat animals, some organisms get their food directly from sunlight. It is a very complicated process. Many of the organisms out there spend most of their lifetimes trying to feed themselves. Sometimes they starve, because they can’t find enough food. How would one approach this very complicated problem in order to make it simple? What’s the right measurement here? In this case, it turns out that when we eat food, we oxidize it, it’s just like burning it. If we take the food that we eat and burn it and measure the number of calories released, we can do a bank account of the amount of food we need, compared to the amount of energy that we use. We can do this for any organism.
A very simple measurement then unifies the whole field of energy and food requirements of organisms. What are the right measurements that you all will need to make in order for us to understand how to use our resources more effectively? I don’t know the answer to that question. I hope you will find it.
I hope I have been able to encourage you to think a little about the enormous questions that face you as a future scientist.
May 23, 2012