March for Science

Today’s march, the March for Science, calls for scientists, and science enthusiasts, to get off the sidelines and make a difference. Wow! Well, I guess that worked. Thank you all for being here today. And, thank you, especially, to the March for Science Miami team for such a wonderful job. This is a key step of a global movement—global indeed, my sister was marching over ten hours ago in Brisbane, Australia. A global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies and governments. And it is totally worth it.

I have a six-week old at home, so I brought a cheat sheet. I hope you don’t mind. My brain keeps farting these days. But I love it!

Anyways, what is science? What is this we are marching for? When addressing that question, and especially these days, I look at people like Marie Curie for inspiration: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” In her view, science is, precisely, the art of rationally understanding the how’s of the world around us. The more people understand, the harder it is to operate for those who use fear as a weapon of fact destruction.

Fire, something at times scary, is actually at my point of departure as a scientist. I was a little boy. I had not yet started school. I remember well, though. Do you know how some things you just remember? This is one of those things. I do not just recollect it because I have been told the story many times by others. The memory is still clear in my mind. Back at home, we used to have a fire stove. One day, I sneaked into the kitchen, grabbed a stool and, with my right hand, committed to touch the beautiful and colorful flame heating up my lunch. Ouch! Immediately, while still hurting, I thought of many interesting questions. And, of course, I tried again. But, this time, as any good scientist would do, with my left hand. Ouch! I did not know back then but, inadvertently, I was being introduced to the wonders of the scientific method. I was making mistakes and, hopefully, learning from them.

Like me back then, science deals with error. Constructive error, I would say. Error, actually, is at the root of one of my favorite definitions of science—one by an artist as a matter of fact—one by German poet Bertolt Brecht: “The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.” In a way, the story of science and technology, is that of constraining, understanding, and embracing error. And it is a story that, one way or another, never ends. After all, and in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to us. We just happen to be good at it—darn good, I would add—and will never stop trying to make sense of it. Humans are curious, what can I say.

I am marching today with my wife Maria and our six-week old daughter Ona—meaning wave in Catalan—among all of you, to show our support to science as a way of thinking that unequivocally informs the decisions we make as a society to ensure a prosper and sustainable future. We march because while we live in a world highly dependent on science and technology, not enough people properly understand the nature and requirements of the rigorous process behind science and technology.

Science has become an essential part of our lives. Without its contribution, it is unthinkable to maintain and improve the level of progress, technology, quality of life and knowledge that we have imposed ourselves as goals for this century. Despite this, a trend has emerged that undermines the role of science in our lives. This trend is harmful to our environment and our health, and fuels a growing disregard for scientific knowledge that is replaced by groundless interpretations of reality. Such a trend must be addressed and put to rest. After all, science has allowed us to overcome disease, tame the energy that thrust our civilization forward, power the devices that keep us connected, sail the oceans and master the sky.

Science and technology centers, as well as countless non-profit initiatives in South Florida and across the nation, are essential to this conversation. They are home to meaningful informal science and technology education and represent a welcoming and wondrous gateway to science literacy for all, from the inquisitive child to the skeptical adult.

For the past couple of years, I have been working on a flight exhibition that goes all the way from the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, to aviation and the future of space exploration. Yes, a science exhibition with dinosaurs, aircraft and space. All three together. Those are the kind of things I get to play with at work these days.

Sometimes, I imagine a caveman, or a cavewoman, looking up at the sky, at a flock of birds, and developing a natural and obvious lust for flight, wanting to fly. It took us thousands of years but we figured it out. We did because that is what we are good at when science is on our side, figuring things out. And, we did not just figure out how to master the sky, here on Earth, but sixty-six years after Orville Wright, from the Wright Brothers, piloted the first ever powered airplane in Kitty Hawk, less than a lifespan later, astronaut Neil Armstrong took his one small step on the Moon. The scientists and engineers that grew up in a society that had mastered the sky took us to the Moon, because they had bigger dreams. The scientists and engineers that grew up in a society that had reached the Moon and built a space station are set to take us to Mars. Because they have bigger dreams. I can only imagine where, in the future, the scientists and engineers that grow up in a multi-planetary society will take us next. Because they will have bigger dreams. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and so do our dreams.

It is science, as a process, that allows us to keep dreaming bigger and coming together as a community to overcome the challenges between where we are and where we want to be.

And this process is not limited to mastering the sky, and the future of space exploration. This process is key to everything. Including, and most importantly, understanding the ultimate spaceship. The one that makes all of us astronauts: planet Earth. By the way, happy Earth Day everybody!

Let’s get serious for a second, though. Our planet is hurting. The science is overwhelmingly clear. The Earth is warming. Polar ice is melting. Sea levels are rising. The world is hotter. This is not a good thing. And for many of us, living in South Florida, this is personal. Miami is ground zero for climate change and sea level rise. I take it personally when the science of climate change is ignored. We cannot accept that. Science must be the driving force behind many of the policies that are being implemented. And, it is our duty, and our responsibility, as scientists, to educate and advise policymakers about those policies that will affect us all. Or, even better, to become policymakers ourselves, and get a seat at the table.

I am committed to science as a leading way to preserve, conserve, cherish and celebrate the pale blue dot—as Carl Sagan famously nicknamed our planet—the only home we have ever known.

Progress, in all fields, comes sometimes at a price. I burned my hand, remember? Twice. A price that requires we understand the greater good, the larger picture, and the fact that there will always be a margin of error, no matter how small, and a record to remind us of both our failures and our successes.

I would like to leave you with something Max Planck once said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

I see many faces today that represent a new generation of scientists, technologists, engineers, artists and mathematicians that will keep feeding the flame of scientific progress. I can only imagine where their constructive failures and humble successes will take us with reason on their side.

As for the answer to the what is science question… Science is. Period. Thank you all very much for marching, and may science be with you.

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