By Ricardo L. Garcia
The Mars Rovers present Earth-bound audiences with an awesome view of frozen rocky plains under a bizarre pink sky….
An ungainly assembly of instruments and photographic cameras, hurtling across the gulfs of space beyond the frontiers of the Solar System at 470 million kilometers a year after decades of exploration, carries mankind’s greetings to whatever other intelligent beings might be sharing the Universe with us….
Smiling men and women do cartwheels, float in mid-air, and wave hello from their perch 200 miles above the ground….
The scene may vary. But the question for many people, alas, is essentially the same. “Uh—this is all quite impressive, I’ll grant you that. But couldn’t we spend the money on some really pressing problem? Like, say, finding a cancer cure?”
Or saving the whales. Or stamping out terrorism. Or reversing the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Take your pick—the list goes on and on.
In a world hard to reconcile with Leibnitz’s cheerful verdict, the question is certainly a valid one, if often a wrong one. Indeed, the problem with this question is, it does contain a kernel of truth—along with a totally unwarranted assumption.
And now, before eyebrows begin to rise in some circles, may I suggest trying a little thought experiment, in the best Einsteinian tradition. (In addition to helping clarify the problem, it will have the added bonus of not coming anywhere near the taxpayers’ real money, which I suspect is at the bottom of the whole business.)
Let us imagine for a moment that we can dispose freely of all those trillions of dollars in the U.S. federal budget for our purposes, no questions asked. As this is, alas, just a mental experiment, we could throw in another couple national budgets, say those of China and Germany, to have some pocket change just in case. (We promise to give it all back as soon as we’re done…).
As the final step, all funds so gathered will be allocated to an account in a Vinci, Italy, bank, in the name of a certain Leonardo. And then we sit back and wait.
And wait. And wait. As the years pass, expectation gradually evolves into suspicion, and then into disappointment. Even allowing for a weekend or two off to fool around with painting and sculpting, there seems something wrong with this guy Leonardo…C’mon, for all the funding he’s got, he should be giving the finishing touches to his airplane by now!! Or at least that helicopter he’s been babbling about for years. The man is an engineering genius, isn’t he?
I suspect that long before reaching this point, though, you will have guessed the truth—all the science of the Renaissance was simply not enough to solve the problems involved in powered flight, the kind that has to do with airplanes. Or even lighter-than-air flight as in balloons, for that matter. What is more, at that moment in history, in some basic areas nobody had the vaguest idea how those problems could be even approached. (The study of bird flight is about as good a guide to developing aviation as the study of elephant cries is to inventing the telephone.)
What was missing, clearly, was fundamental knowledge—the kind of knowledge potentially leading to major breakthroughs in technology. Until that knowledge could be patiently gathered and systematized, no working airplane could be had. As luck would have it, it took us nearly four more centuries to get there, and it is a sobering thought that it could easily have taken us a trifle longer than that, under only slightly different circumstances.
Which bring us to another important factor. For a decent sum of fundamental knowledge to build up to a point where it can be put to use in technology, or medicine, say, there has to be a sizable number of minds working simultaneously on a given problem for enough time to come up with the goods.
To be continued
Ricardo L. Garcia
Ringraziamo Ricardo L. Garcia per averci inviato il suo articolo. Domani la seconda e ultima parte. Ci scusiamo per tutti i lettori che non conoscono l’inglese.