Sunday, July 24, 2016

Thought-Experiment About Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine And Hollywood

If Einstein, Planck, Bohr and other prominent physicists had make a concerted effort, around, say, 1920, to warn against the dangers of using radioactive materials in research, and had succeeded in keeping such research very small-scale and protective measures at a very high level, would they have succeeded in effectively banning nuclear power and weapons 20 years before they were developed, simply because things like radium and uranium and plutonium were consistently treated like exactly what they are: extremely dangerous things which should be kept as far from people as possible? At the very least, they might've lengthened Marie Curie's life a little bit, and who knows to how many beneficial scientific breakthroughs that alone might have led? And she's only the most famous of many physicists who killed themselves with radioactivity.

And if this had happened, would there have been fewer of those dopey movies made whose message, in a nutshell, is: Oh noes! Cutting-edge science and technology is leading directly to an apocalypse which will eradicate all of mankind, helphelphelp they're gonna kill us all?

You say you hadn't noticed such anti-STEM fearmongering in Hollywood? Well, sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. Take a stroll with me through time: remember 1995? People were starting to get excited about the Internet. Remember the 1995 movie The Net, with Sandra Bullock and Dennis Miller? Sweet Sandra's life is threatened by one swarm of evil people after another -- all because she works on the (duh-duh-DUHHHHH!) Internet. Remember 2001's Swordfish, with convicted hacker Hugh Jackman forced by extremely-dangerous John Travolta and completely-topless Halle Berry, tempted by evil, evil cutting-edge equipment to participate in extreme violence via the (duh-duh-DUHHHHH!) Internet? Like many other movies, Swordfish is notable for unintentionally-hilarious depictions of how non-experts imagine that cutting-edge technology works. Movies about computers tend to age very badly.

Remember what genetic modification led to in The Fly and the Jurassic Park movies? Not to mention almost every single Frankenstein movie? Young Frankenstein ends pretty nicely. It's the only exception which occurs to me at the moment. Can you name one other Hollywood movie in which genetic engineering leads to anything other than pure horror? ("How could you have been so blind as not to see that playing God would end up killing us all?! Oh, damn you, damn you, you fool!")

Or artificial intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Terminator movies, the Matrix movies, or, to take a more recent example which may or may not prove to be as memorable, Transcendence, released in 2014, starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman, which has both the hilariously non-realistic computer stuff and the horrifying apocalypse as the inevitable result of AI? ("Oh, how could you have been so blind?! How could you not have seen that the attempt to make a computer brain could only lead to huge massacres?!" That's not a direct quote from the script of Transcendence but it's pretty damn close.) You beginning to see the trend I'm talking about?

You beginning to understand how vaccination could be so unpopular in Hollywood because so many people there don't understand STEM (that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) [PS, 1 July 2017: Actually, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Whoops!] and have an uninformed fear and loathing of it?

I agree, unreservedly, that nuclear energy and nuclear bombs are very, very bad things, and that it's only natural that they would lead to an association of STEM and disaster in many minds. But things could have been very different. Scientists themselves could have prevented that nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs ever came to be, and if they had acted early enough, that prevention could have been relatively easy. There's nothing intrinsic about physics which had to lead straight to nukes.

And the fact that those bombs and plants did come to be has had a tremendous effect on the way that people in STEM research work. But that's one of the things you don't know if you don't know very much about STEM besides what you see in movies.

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