26 August 2005

'New physics', same old problems

I caught an interesting docudrama on Thursday night entitled E=mc². It looked at the lives of Einstein, as well as Michael Faraday, Antoine Lavoisier and Emilie du Chatelet, all of whom contributed in some way to the thinking which resulted in the Theory of Relativity. Overall it was quite well done and accessible, even for those whose understanding of the science may not have been great.

What I'd like to take issue with is the oft-repeated contention that the world was changed forever by the Theory of Relativity. It's a lovely romantic notion, and indeed, it should be true. But then I look at the recent London bombings, the riots in Gaza, the awful state of scientific education in wealthy countries such as the USA and the massive influence of fundamentalism around the world, and I realise it's bunkum. Of course, the cumulative knowledge of the human race is greater than ever, as is the number of people who have access to formal education. There is more opportunity to acquire education, at least in most countries, than at any previous point in history. Yet precisely the systems, media and communications technologies which could be used to eliminate the ignorance which breeds hatred and violence have instead been hijacked to propagate various forms of ignorance. When once ignorance was diffused and belonged to individuals, it has become systemic and belongs to groups. And because these groups are self-encouraging, and in many cases defined by their opposition to mainstream thought, this is a form of ignorance far more dangerous and harder to combat.

And there can be little doubt that the worst perpetrators of this form of institutionalised ignorance are fundamentalist religious groups. Whilst extremist Islam obviously comes to mind, fundamentalist Christianity has been at least as successful at convincing its followers to disengage with modern science and thought, whilst enjoying all the trappings of modern medicine and technology which that science has brought them.

Those of us who believe that ignorance is the root of all evil and that the world can be made a better place through education have, frankly, been caught with our textbooks down. We have allowed religious groups, and every form of ‘-ism’ to hijack the public discourse, and we have allowed our governments to relax on their educational agenda. Meanwhile the agents of misinformation have not been nearly as apathetic. Lest we forget what the consequences of such complacency can be we need look only at Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

So has Einstein changed the world? Has the equivalence of energy and matter changed the world in any visible way apart from through nuclear bombs and the Cold War? In today’s world at least a third of the population live under what I might view as repressive regimes. Large sections of the African and Asian population do not have access to basic education. In the Middle-East, Pakistan, the US and other countries, hundreds of millions are in the grip of the anti-intellectual thought which comes with fundamentalist religion.

I could go on, but I’m starting to depress myself. Perhaps more important than despairing about the current situation is asking, “Where to from here?” Is there anything in my naive assertion that education and compassion really can improve the world, or is entropy inevitable, even in social systems? What do you think?Go to eebahgum!

1 comment:

jay said...

I know exactly where you are coming from. The worlds technological knowledge is advancing every day, yet a huge portion of the global budget for scientific research is spent on miltary research, so that more human beings can get blown apart by each bomb.

Humans are growing in intellect and knowledge, but it seems as if as spiritual beings they are in a serious state of entrophy.

While Religion is not helping, a spiritual understanding by people of who they are and how they relate to others, would certainly help.