Comments On Views of the Late Isaac Asimov

asimovLike society in general, science needs a variety of both skills and viewpoints to survive. Some of its devotees have been ingenious experimentalists; others have devised elegant theories solely from their desks. Some combine both skills and manage research teams.  Many scientists, like natural philosophers of yesteryear, remain focused on providing humanity with insight into the universe. Others want to assist engineers and investors to derive more practical benefits. Since the pursuit of convenience is accompanied by costs to culture, health and the environment, we are also lucky to have scientists who focus on providing checks and balances.

We all tend to gravitate towards people with similar viewpoints, which is probably why I have always looked up to the late Isaac Asimov. He was a biochemistry specialist but abandoned a career path that would have blocked off the beautiful branches of what he called the “orchard of science.” Instead he devoted the rest of his life to science fiction and science popularization, reminding us that science’s survival also depends on generalists and educators.

Through a series of developments of absorbing lack of interest (as far as these pages are concerned), I found myself doing research on a biochemical topic. In that area of study I obtained my Ph.D., and in no time at all I was teaching biochemistry at a medical school.

But even that was too wide a subject. From books to nonfiction, to science, to chemistry, to biochemistry—and not yet enough. The orchard had to be narrowed down further. To do research, I had to find myself a niche within biochemistry, so I began work on nucleic acids

And at about that point, I rebelled! I could not stand the claustrophobia that clamped down upon me. I looked with horror, backward and forward across the years, at a horizon that was narrowing down and narrowing down to so petty a portion of the orchard. What I wanted was all the orchard, or as much of it as I could cover in a lifetime of running…

I have never been sorry for my stubborn advance toward generalization. To be sure, I can’t wander in detail through all the orchard, any more than anyone else can, no matter how stupidly determined I may be to do so. Life is far too short and the mind is far too limited. But I can float over the orchard as in a balloon.

As a voting citizen, a scientist can never isolate himself from politics. Leaders serve us well if they do their best to address a variety of society’s selfless pursuits. But it’s all too easy to pretend and deceive while in a position of power. Asimov often complained that while a good scientist will be ruined professionally by being dishonest, many politicians and businessmen thrive on purposely distorting the truth.

Having said that, young scientists should not fall into the trap of thinking that the world would be better off if power was all in the hands of scientists. Being human they can easily be biased by self-interest and shallow ideologies. The world has had leaders who had a science background, but from a utilitarian point of view, they fall on various spots on a spectrum of quality.  What we need is for leaders to tap the best qualities of a variety of people. And honesty is not only the mark of a good scientist, but it’s essential in all occupations, from plumber to president. When that quality was lacking in a President, Asimov was never shy to speak out:

Asimov vehemently opposed Richard Nixon, considering him “a crook and a liar”. He closely followed Watergate, and was pleased when the president was forced to resign. But Asimov was dismayed over the pardon extended to Nixon by his successor: “I was not impressed by the argument that it has spared the nation an ordeal. To my way of thinking, the ordeal was necessary to make certain it would never happen again.”[205]

high-angle-view-of-crowd-waiting-at-crosswalk-to-cross-road-556706617-58d0377f5f9b581d72f70c90The more we crowd ourselves on the planet, the more likely we are to communicate diseases amongst ourselves, take ourselves for granted, and stress our planet for the resources we need to survive. Asimov, who was usually very optimistic, felt strongly about this serious problem which we have mostly ignored after a surge of interest in the 1960s and 1970s.

Overpopulation is going to destroy it all… if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears.[214]

 

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Cancer, deep-sea partnerships and the resented carbon-tax

 “We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.”

-Noam Chomsky

Forgive me this indulgence, but rather than devote the usual 500 to 1200 words to a given topic, I would like to scan a trio of topics and ideas that have caught my attention in the past week.

  1. The mantra “everything causes cancer” is far-removed from the truth. Out of the literally millions of known mixtures, compounds and elements, less than 500 are proven or probable carcinogens. As children and young adults, many of us never suspected city air, processed meat and alcohol to be among the culprits. This unfortunately leads some of us to wave the white flag and adopt the erroneous generalisation. But that defeatist attitude is music to the ears of the carcinogens’ users and producers who refuse to acknowledge responsibility. Speaking of music,  sound is a form of energy, and along with radio waves and all the colours of the rainbow—none of those, unlike ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma, cause cancer.
  2. Something a little newer and more original. If as a teacher or student you hear of an oxidation-reduction partnership, the words might conjure up an image of people partnering up to do a redox lab. But until recently, not even the most specialized biochemists imagined that two different organisms were symbiotically working together to oxidize methane and reduce sulfate, respectively, in layers of sediment and rock under the sea floor. MethanogenOne of the microbes, a methanotroph which uses methane (CH4) as its energy and carbon source, reduces CH4 to hydrogen carbonate ion (HCO3) in the absence of oxygen. But the metal ions that the organism uses to pick up electrons lost by methane are not efficient enough. A sulfate-reducing bacteria comes to the rescue. It uses the electrons released by the oxidation of methane to reduce sulfate (SO42-) to sulfide (S2-). Its reward? It too obtains energy in the process.
  3. There have been riots in Paris in early December 2018 over the proposed fuel tax. Since France does not generate very much CO2 in generating electricity (70% of the country’s power comes from nuclear energy), it would make more sense for them to subsidise electric car purchases and taxing new gasoline- powered automobiles. I’m never one to defend internal combustion automobiles, but let’s bear in mind that the entire transportation sector including ships, trains, planes and automobiles account for only 14% of carbon emissions. 20152C_GHGSectors_GlobalAnd then what impact will higher fuel prices actually have on consumption and consequent emissions? Even if it doesn’t lower emissions immediately, there’s another layer of strategy behind a carbon tax. It creates a pool of funds which can can then be used as incentives to lower emissions. For example, the money can be used to set up charging stations for electric cars. In Quebec the carbon tax has created a fund of close to a billion dollars but as of December 2018, it has not been managed properly. The new CAQ government in this province is not looking to abolish the tax but is looking into ways of assuring to meet the 2020 goal of cutting emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels.
    paris-riots-emmanuel-macron-yellow-jackets
    More carbon emissions from the violent protesters in Paris. From Newsweek, Dec 2 , 2018

    Governments, however, need to quickly use a comprehensive approach so that all emissions are addressed and abated. The current narrow-minded focus on taxation of fuel won’t cut it. This is exacerbated by the fact that environmental values are are not deeply held and shared by enough people. As a result every mantra: “eat less meat”, “drive less”, “preserve forests”, etcetera, gets misinterpreted as an authoritative order. And too many of us are so talented at cutting our noses to spite the face of government. As an alternative strategy, the federal government can nourish the roots of the environmental grass movement. I know schools are asked to do an awful lot these days. But most schools do next to nothing about climate change. Yet they seem to find the time to peddle an awful lot of electronics and student travel. Here’s a list of things schools can do to be proactive about climate change.(1) Encourage teachers to use public transit or electric cars and not fill the parking lot with 19th century inventions.

    (2) Compost cafeteria waste.

    (3) Reduce and reuse before dumping stuff into recycling bins.

    (4) Reward students for coming up with green ideas.

    (5) Serve beef sparingly in the cafeteria. Replace it with more chicken meals, which have a much lower carbon footprint.

    (6) Encourage local travel instead of flying or driving to remote destinations.

Sources:
Nature Communications. Carbonate-hosted methanotrophy represents an unrecognized methane sink in the deep sea
www.nature.com/articles/ncomms6094
Scientific American The Mystery of the Missing Molecules scientificamerican/journal/v319/n5/box/scientificamerican1118-32_BX1.html
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