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How Science Drives Society

Telstra Podcast | 10 November 2009

Wilson da Silva is Editor of Cosmos Magazine and tells Hugh Liney all about National Science Week and how science could mean more for business and government.


Hugh: I'm talking to Wilson da Silva who is the editor of Cosmos and for the wrap up of National Science Week which was held recently around Australia, Wilson tell us a little bit about the importance and achievements of scientists that were celebrated in Science Week, also perhaps some of the purposes and functions of Science week itself.

Wilson: As you say science is pretty important, it is essential to our lives – we couldn’t go a day without science, whether its relying on weather reports, which use satellite data telling us what the weather is going to be like tomorrow or in the next month; to using mobile phones or email. 21st century life is totally dependant upon science, but the sad thing is not many people understand how science works, which is where innovation comes from, and we actually have a shortage of students choosing the sciences as a career. One of the things the federal government did 12 years ago to address this was create National Science Week, a kind of festival to highlight science and also show career options in science. It's also to show people that not only are there great jobs you can get with science and engineering degrees, but the future is made by scientists and engineers, and that we really need to start appreciating that. This Science Week was very very successful; there were more than 1,000 events around the country, something like 1 million people attended those events, which were largely volunteer run – in things like museums and schools. Some science journalists will put on events to highlight the activities of science and how important they are. If you are working in technology today or working in any large company and you are ignorant of science you are missing opportunities so its really worth while paying attention.

Hugh: That’s a good point to make. One of your more tangential projects and part of the Cosmos involvement was a program called ‘Hello from Earth’, can you explain the ‘Hello from Earth’?

Wilson: Sure, so the science minister Kim Carr's office approached me on that and asked if we had any ideas on how to generate interest in Science Week, and we proposed a 'Twitter to the Stars' – to create a website to collect messages of up to about 160 characters, kind of like a text message, and these messages would be moderated by us at Cosmos and at the end of Science Week we could transmit them to the nearest Earth-like planet outside our solar system. We personally can’t transmit it, we need a very large radio dish. Luckily, NASA and the CSIRO provided it, the Tidbinbilla tracking system outside of Canberra. It is actually one of the largest dishes for this kind of stuff; its maintaining contact with over 40 spacecraft at any one time, out at the edges of the solar system, and some of the them outside the solar system.

The DSS43 antenna transmitted the 26,000 messages to Gliese 581d
The DSS43 antenna (foreground) transmitted the 26,000 messages to Gliese 581d

Wilson: So they have very powerful equipment and they agreed to come on board, and we collected the messages. I have to tell you, it was extraordinarily popular – within 13 days we had 1.25 million page impressions and 250,000 people came to the site, and checked it out, and we had 26,000 messages logged. Interestingly 41,000 people registered but only 26,000 could decide what it was they wanted to say. The media coverage was extraordinary: we had 9,000 blogs talk about it, we had 6,000 messages on social media like Twitter and Facebook, and 1,000 newspapers that we know of covered the story. And we hundreds upon hundreds of radio interviews. If the job that the science minister asked us to do was to attract people to Science Week, I think we did it well. At the end of Science Week, August 28th, we actually went down to Canberra to the big radio dish, DSS43 – that is massive, it’s the size of two football fields, and the tower in the middle transmits is the size of a five-story building. To watch that thing tip toward you as it points to Gliese 581d, our target planet, it's actually quite impressive, and we watched it transmit all 26,000 messages, which ir did three times over a two-hour period. The intensity of the of the broadcast was equivalent to 300 billion mobile phones transmitting at once.

Hugh: They are fantastic figures that are a great story, the potential popularity of communication of scientific messages. You yourself have more detailed reason as to why astronomy and space exploration both made such a positive continuing effect on mankind over the centuries – tell us a bit about that story.

Wilson: Absolutely. Astronomy is something that is kind of fun, but in reality – if you were a Chinese emperor thousands of years ago, your mandate actually depended on it. Upon you being able to predict when the right season for planting and harvesting; and that kind of stuff was created by astronomers, they gave you this information. At the beginning of each dynasty, a new calendar was created – because calendars drift over time, and the seasons don’t quite match – and one of the first things an emperor did to establish his reign was to create a new calendar. Today, astronomers give us things like time right down to a billionth of a billionth of a second, which we rely upon for computer transmissions; email would not be possible without it. When you send an email with an attachment, each message is broken down into little packets, and those packets are a few kilobytes each – an attachment is broken into thousands or billions of packets and then re-assembled at the other end.

Wilson: Now, if you don’t have exact timing on your computer – down to a billionth of a second – the message is going to come together incorrectly. So that’s one simple example. But astronomy in the 21st century is giving us information about climate change – we wouldn’t have discovered climate change if it wasn’t for the study of the atmosphere of Venus, for example. It was when scientists like James Hansen – who he got his PhD studying in the atmosphere of Venus; well, he wanted to understand why Venus is so hot. Venus is very much like Earth, like a twin sister, the same size but a little bit closer to the Sun but largely the same. However, it's horribly horribly hot, it's 400˚C on the surface – and he wanted to figure out why that was. He found there was a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than existed on Earth, and thought 'Wow, I wonder if carbon dioxide helped create this runaway greenhouse effect? And what’s been happening with carbon dioxide on Earth?' He went back to data and realised that carbon dioxide had been increasing for the last 100 years. So we became aware of global warming through studying another planet.

Wilson: The concept of nuclear winter – that a nuclear exchange could create a blanket of dust that would block out the sun and freeze up the Earth – that was discovered by studying Mars and its atmosphere. So there is a lot of stuff astronomy helps us with – even the ozone layer was discovered by trying to understand the chemistry of other planetary atmospheres. Trying to understand basic problems in science, challenging problems, which you might say, 'look it, it has no business application', but in reality it could actually save our bacon, or create whole new industries, like stem cells. And if it wasn’t for the discovery of antibiotics – Alexander Fleming just looking at mould and wondering what kind of mould is this and what does it do; well, that’s how we discovered antibiotics. Antibiotics have saved billions of people, and again, it's basic research. It's essential to encourage our scientists to take up the challenge and tackle those big questions.

Hugh: That’s a good point and I wanted to come to the matter of business because many listeners are in business and government and you have noted that Kim Carr has been proud advocate of Science Week. What is the state of government and business performance in the scientific world at this stage in Australia? And science policy for that matter, what your overview?

Wilson: Look, over the last 15-20 years things have gone up and down in science policy. We do have a lot more government funding, and the Australian government probably spends more than it needs to. But that's because there's so little business R&D. Having said that, the incentives of business R&D which have gone up and down over the last 15-20 years, they were very good in the late 80’s early 90’s when there was a 150% tax deduction, but that scheme was changed and had been modified by various governments and various ministers. I think we are back to a point where business is more comfortable about investing in R&D, but we need our businesspeople to not think of science as something as you put in the attic and ignore because you don’t understand it. Science and technology is what is creating the market of tomorrow; if you think that you shouldn’t have to worry about science and technology, it's like saying 'Oh this internet stuff will just go away'. I have a friend that I poke every now and again because I remember he said to me in 1992 ‘Look, email is just a fad’, and you know, innovation is not a fad, it's changing the world and you need to get on board. Take social media, which is a great way to keep in touch with your customers, it's a fantastic way of having direct contact. These are things you cannot ignore and if you're not abreast of where its going to go, where it might lead to, you're toast.

Wilson: I will give you an example, there is a concept called the Technological Singularity: it's based on Moore's Law, that every 18 months to two years the processing power of computer chips double, and this has been happening since 1968. It's forecast that somewhere between 2030 and 2045, the processing power of computers will surpass the processing power of the human brain. Now, if that happens, I don’t think we will get a robot that is going to take over the world; I think what we are going to see is large scale problems that require massive amounts of processing power will suddenly become very cheap to do. And the kind thinking that you and I can do – very complex analysis for a computer, but intuitive to us – could suddenly be done by a computer. And it is possible within a few years of that point – because processing power keeps doubling every two years – that we will have something that will not only have the processing power of a human brain, but double that power; and then, two years later, quadruple; and so on. Eventually, we will likely see the rise of true artificial intelligence, of a kind that may be truly sentient and that we can talk to and interact with naturally. And then some of the most difficult problems in society – whether it's cancer or massive amounts of data analysis or climate change – we will be able to assign it to computers, who would be way more powerful than the human mind, and perhaps we will find solutions we can not possibly imagine. Now, just think what that would do to the economy? Scientists who study this predict that we will see another major industrial revolution. The last time something like this happened was when manual labour began to be replaced by machines, we saw the economy double seven-fold – there was an extraordinary spike in economic growth. Some have predicted that we are going to see something like 30-fold growth when the Technological Singularity arrives.

Hugh: It is lovely to hear you talk about technology advancement creatively rather then a threatening way that some writers present it. Which brings me to indeed your own publication. Cosmos and you have an issue out now in early October tell us what’s about in the recent issue.

COSMOS October 2009 issue
COSMOS October 2009 issue

Wilson: Science in indeed exciting, there's lot of good it does. But it's value neutral, so it can be put to detrimental uses as well. Take memory: although we don’t exactly understand how memory works, and how memories are formed in the brain, scientists have found that they can actually start manipulating memories, deleting certain memories – particularly for people that post-traumatic stress disorder – and that's a good thing. Patients might have been a soldier in Rwanda or trapped in a bush fire, and have painful memories that are debilitating. So there are scientists involved in looking at how to minimise the effects and pain of those memories and, in some cases, scientists have found ways of editing those memories or actually deleting them. Now, the flip side is that same technology can be used for ill, and people immediately think of ideas like deleting memories from unwilling subjects and mass population control, so it's a technology that needs to be used carefully. Hopefully just for regressing negative memories or enhancing memories that you want to keep. In the current issue, we've go a special of memory – how it works, and how it might be manipulated by 'memory engineers' if you like, – and it's worth a read.

Hugh: Well I am certainly advocating for our listeners to get a copy of Cosmos.

Wilson: I should have mentioned that we also look at the revolution that electric cars will bring, which is dramatic. What we have got used to in the last 110 years with the petrol engine is a whole system of where you buy your car, and then you get your petrol to run it, and manufacturers sell you both cars but also make good margins on the parts they sell you. Well, that economy is going to be turned completely upside down by electric cars. Once you go close to 50% electric cars, the whole ball game changes, because you have companies which will sell you not a car, but a car service – like a mobile phone service, where you rent access to a network and yo get a phone free. Well, potentially, you could get your car free if you pay for a car service; or maybe you have a car and you buy it without any batteries, and companies provide battery services and lease these to you. This changes the car market because the electric cars have very few parts they don’t require much servicing, they don’t require expensive parts that need to be replaced all the time, they have very simple engines. So if you suddenly have a whole bunch of electric cars, people don’t go to petrol stations anymore, they charge overnight at home. So you can see that if you are selling cars or running petrol stations, you're going to need to find a new business model. That is an example the coming revolution.

The future sometimes has a nasty way of catching up with you, and the future of electric cars that you might think of as only in science fiction films – well, it could be here closer than you think, and change the world that we know today.

Hugh: For that fascinating glimpse thank you Wilson da Silva.


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