Cicerone stresses importance of science to sustain world’s population

Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, joined retired “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer for an onstage discussion Thursday morning in the Amphitheater. Photo by Eric Shea.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Rather than worrying about whether the country would exist after the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and the United States Congress made the effort to provide for the country’s future.

During the war, Lincoln and Congress signed the Morrill Act, which created all the country’s public universities and the National Academy of Sciences, said Ralph Cicerone, current president of the academy.

“Even in tough times, you’ve got to be thinking ahead,” Cicerone said. “Show some ambition and get on with it.”

Cicerone and retired “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer had a conversation about the lack of goals and ambition and about science’s role in society during Thursday’s morning lecture as part of Week Two’s theme, “The Lehrer Report: What Voters Need to Know.”

Though several members of Congress and the U.S. Senate understand the importance of science, Cicerone said, there is a general lack of goals and ambition in government. He used the Lincoln example to show what the government had done despite the issues it faced.

Interest groups throughout the country and political leaders with an issue in mind try to do the right thing, but the common goals are missing, Cicerone said.

Cicerone explains significance of Higgs boson

The search to find the smallest unit of matter began with the ancient Greeks. Now, scientists have probably discovered the Higgs boson, a pervasive particle found everywhere — in the vacuum, in space, on Earth.

Before Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and retired “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer discussed science and politics in Thursday’s morning lecture, Cicerone explained the importance what the Higgs boson could mean.

The particle is an invisible force field that gives all other particles their mass and inertia. It also prevents everything from moving at the speed of light at the same time, Cicerone said.

Mathematics made it evident that there was a missing piece to the structure of matter.

“It’s like we’re building a structure, and the structure holds together, but all of a sudden they realize that something was missing,” Cicerone said. “And it looks like that’s the Higgs boson.”

Particles are elusive. A particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, was built to find, or to find evidence of, the Higgs boson. It accelerates particles to high speeds and they collide with one another.

When the particles collide, it creates a shower of debris. If the Higgs boson particle existed, it would be in that shower, Cicerone said. Scientists have looked for ways the particles interact and for traces they have left behind, and have concluded that the particle probably exists.

Cicerone said finding the particle is a step toward understanding the smallest unit of matter and how it interacts with other particles.

“This is a major step in filling out the entire zoo of particle names, how they interact, what they consist of,” he said. “Probably not the final answer, but it’s a big step forward in that historical quest, and now it helps explain the behavior of all matter. It’s pretty stunning.”

Lehrer added, “When things are rough for individuals or for our society, that’s when everything should be mounted and everything should be organized, and everything, as you say, should go to common goals. But we’re not doing that right now.”

Finding those common goals requires leadership, Cicerone said.

“In our country, some of our best potential leaders have found that when they take too many risks, they get shot down,” he said.

Instead, people should back timely ideas or ambitious leaders who can push their ideas forward.

Cicerone also discussed the importance of science in today’s society. Without science, there would be no way to sustain the population, he said.

“I’m pretty convinced that we’re much more dependent on science today than we ever have been before,” Cicerone said. “We’re taking it for granted, which is not good.”

But Earth, he said, has limitations.

Today, there are 7 billion people on the planet. When Cicerone calculated how much land each person could have, he discovered it would be about two football fields.

That means a person would have to include everything he or she and family would need in that space: food, energy, drinking water, buildings, roads, educational facilities, waste disposal and more — components needed to sustain a population.

With the application of science and trade, so far the amount of land we have now is sustainable for 7 billion people, Cicerone said.

“All of these things have to happen,” he said. “And there’s no way to sustain this population without science. It’s just that simple.”

When it became evident the human population was expanding faster than food production, scientists and others looked into crop-breeding techniques. More crop fields led to increased food production.

Though problems with world hunger and famine continue, Cicerone said, it is not because of food production. Hunger and famine persist because of incompetent or poorly motivated political leaders, he said.

Under the George W. Bush administration, Cicerone led a climate-change study. He said the climate-change issue has played out differently in the U.S. than in other countries, and he did not expect the political division that exists.

“I saw pieces of it, but I didn’t see this phenomenon that we have now where the issue has become one of political separation,” Cicerone said.

Though it has been frustrating, scientists are confident they will find the answers in the long run, Cicerone said. The key to science is repetition. Scientists carefully repeat observations and record data to see if the same results occur.

“Eventually, the truth comes out,” Cicerone said. “That’s the beauty of science, so in the long run, I’m not worried. But in the long run, it’s a long time.”

Photo by Eric Shea


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What is your opinion of the state of science education in our country?

A: All of us are concerned about the state of education in general in the United States. The one part of the system that is really excelling is the top universities. When I was chancellor at one of those universities, I talked to my colleagues around the country. They’re always receiving visitors from the rest of the world, trying to figure out how we do it, how they can imitate our top research universities. But we’re not getting enough visitors from the rest of the world who want to see how we’re doing our K–12 education, our middle schools, our high schools, because the rest of the world thinks that they’re doing better. And some of the test results are showing that we are falling. So we’ve got a lot of work to do. This is a perfect example of a national goal that we ought to be able to commit to.

Q: Does creationism do damage to advanced science?

A: No, I don’t think so. It’s annoying for scientists to have to respond to criticisms and even other ideas that just don’t recognize what’s been learned. But I don’t sense a great deal of inherent disagreement between religion and science. I think the two are really very separable pursuits of humans, so I don’t worry too much about it. Some of the other forms that have spun off from creationism, like, what was called intelligent design, which claims that something cannot happen at random over evolutionary time scales. In almost every case so far, everything that’s been proposed as too complicated to have happened on its own has been shown that it did happen on its own. Examples like the blood clotting mechanisms in humans, we now understand how it all came about, how it happens biochemically. That’s a whole set of issues that require a few drinks and a long evening, too.

Q: If the government had accepted the reality of global warming when the warnings were first given, could our climate be better now?

A: Fortunately, most of the change is still in the future. We are seeing scientifically measurable changes. But so far, the impact of those changes hasn’t hit us in the face. We are seeing measurable changes in the temperatures of water and air, of sea-level rise — which is attributable to the warming and the melting of the polar ice caps. We’re seeing changes in heavy precipitation events. We’re getting more very heavy kinds of rainfall. So we’re seeing evidence, but most of the change is still in the future. What is going to be the impact of the future warmth and drying on growing seasons and crops, demands for irrigation? Most of those impacts are still in the future, but to prevent them, we have to get going.

Q: Several questions are about our own role in climate change, and wanting to know whether the problem is controversial because it requires us to make difficult changes and what those responsibilities are.

A: I think the second part of that person’s point is really important. It is true that, when I listen to discussions about climate change, the headline will say, “Experts debate science of climate change.” And that isn’t what they were talking about. They’re talking about how we have to adjust our energy mix in the future, how much we’re going to be able to continue to depend on coal and oil, natural gas, and how painful it will be to switch to new energy sources. They’re not talking about the science of climate change, most of the time. So that really annoys me. And this is going to be a difficult switch. But fortunately, we have other incentives that will pull us in the right direction.

Q: Are you concerned by the withdrawal of public funding and the privatization of space exploration?

A: I have to be careful here, because we have two major studies underway at the academy, which were requested by Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, about: What are we doing in the space program, is it the right mixture of things, does it compare with our national goals for the use of space, are these activities well funded enough? I have to keep my mouth shut on some of that, because we’re still gathering evidence. It comes back to our question about goals again. To take on a project that’s going to take 10 years — like, for example, the landing on the moon, back in ’69, it took almost 10 years — that was more than one president. It was far more than one Congress. There had to be a nation committed to that particular goal. Now, you can disagree over whether putting people on the moon was an appropriate goal. But the point is, to achieve it took a sustained commitment that required a national priority to be set. So some of the things that people want done in space today are 30- or 40-year projects. Colonizing Mars, mining of asteroids to provide a new basis of civilization, and so forth. Those are not going to be done without national goals being set. Because one president can just overturn what the previous one did. So that’s kind of my bottom-line answer. We have to agree on goals.

—Transcribed by Sydney Maltese