EDITORIAL: Physical Sciences-Social Sciences – A Scientist’s Perspective


My background and my research are in the field of Astrophysics. Last month I attended an American Astronomical Society meeting in DC. While attending some of the lectures, I have to admit that I was overwhelmed and excited by the advancements we humans have made in technology and in using that technology for discovery. As a retired NASA astrophysicist, you’d think almost nothing would overwhelm me, but what I saw did.

Many of you know that the Nobel Prize in Physics this year went to the measurement of gravity waves. I attended a lecture given by one of the leaders of this team. When Einstein predicted gravity waves about 100 years ago, he also predicted that they would NEVER be measurable. The measurement techniques used required almost inconceivable technological breakthroughs. However, the measurement alone was not sufficient to identify the cause of gravity waves (two black holes colliding) and their origin. This last part required computational capacities inconceivable a few decades ago. Sitting in the audience, listening to what had been done and seeing the data on the screen was quite an experience for me.

Another area that was impressive was our understanding of the Universe. As a graduate student 40 years ago, this area of ​​research was over, nothing new to discover. However, with the advent of new telescopes and higher computing power, this area of ​​research has become exciting again. We can now look back into almost the beginning of time. We can see that the structure of the Universe is very exciting with a lot to learn. As an interesting aside on this point, you might be interested to know that you, as a human being, are made of star poo. Yes, in order to get the carbon and oxygen needed to create human beings, the original stars have to transform the hydrogen into these other elements and then expel them into space. The new atoms that are squeezed out form new stars and planets and living things.

While being excited about new discoveries in the physical sciences, I think about our sociological development as a species. Here, I see us as not having advanced much beyond the era of clubs and spears (Yes, we have nukes instead of clubs, but the sociological use is the same.). There is so much about our social interactions that just don’t make sense. Why can’t we fix the issues? Of course, that was a rhetorical question.

Reading some of the less technical journals, I find that we have a better understanding of how the human brain works. One of the more interesting articles dealt with the issue of empathy. While we thought it was learned behavior, we are now learning that to some extent, maybe even a large extent, it is neurological behavior – biological reading. Does that mean that one day we can make everyone’s brain have empathy? Is this desirable? The ethical issues are getting huge. But, if everyone had empathy for everyone, the murder might never happen. Maybe there is a downside to everyone having empathy?

While our advances in the physical sciences are exciting and often lead to better living conditions for all, what are the ramifications of “advances” in the social sciences? I see we are making progress, but is it enough and is it fast enough?

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