The laser was invented just 50 years ago. Then nobody thought lasers might register barcodes in a supermarket, or read a disc in a DVD player. Nobody foresaw that lasers might identify the DNA base-pairs in a gene-sequencing machine or transmit messages by fibreoptic cable. That lasers could be valuable for fine surgery of the eye was unthinkable, let alone that they might kickstart nuclear fusion to produce green energy.
Certainly nobody predicted that it might eventually be possible to focus the spot produced by a laser to just one nanometer — a circle of light two thousand times smaller than the smallest life-form on this planet — and possibly produce a powerful microscope capable of looking inside individual molecules.
I would rather live now than at any time previously as the benefits of human inventiveness have never been greater. But technological developments proceed ever faster and the threats facing humanity as a result of our cleverness have never been more serious. In America, for example, there is massive funding for some research into lasers because they have a role in the nuclear weapons programme. If our ingenuity as a species is to continue to bring great benefit, and if the dangers latent in many technologies are to be minimised, we must handle our knowledge with care.
Scientists are not generally responsible for the misuse of the knowledge they generate. For example, during the Manhattan Project, democratic governments kept the development of nuclear weapons secret, in spite of many scientists’ protests. If we are to benefit from science, we need scientifically literate citizens, otherwise our political representatives may make unwise decisions.
In a properly educated and civilised society, scientific ignorance should be unacceptable. It’s no longer satisfactory to profess ignorance of simple physics such as some knowledge of the basic structure of atoms and the presence of particles such as protons. In medicine we should all understand what is meant by a randomised clinical trial and why these are essential to prove the efficacy of medical compounds. One key question in chemistry that most people ought to understand is how carbon dioxide leads to global warming and what other gases contribute to climate change — and in biology, the nature of stem cells and their derivation in both adult and early-developing tissues. We should all know that the key action of a gene is to make a protein and their manufacture by a mechanism of coding can occasionally go wrong, particularly if exposed to the wrong environments.
Great science writing, such as The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice, by Peter Medawar and Stephen J. Gould, or Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, should be essential reading. Each society must ensure that it provides the highest quality scientific education.
Scientific literacy means understanding the nature of scientific progress. We should consider that announcements of a new discovery tend to be heralded by exaggerated claims for its immediate value yet, like the laser, most advances have beneficial applications that are not envisaged when the discovery is first made. And some advances frequently have a threatening aspect that is unrecognised at first.
That is why scientists should try to communicate their work more effectively, as its positive value and its adverse consequences may affect us all. Public knowledge will never prevent the rare cases of scientific dishonesty, such as the recent publications of Dr Andrew Wakefield. But it will inform people better about how to interpret the sensationalist media comments that such publications sometimes receive. So science festivals like that at Cheltenham are extremely valuable.
Although the laser was invented and developed at Bell Laboratories in the US, most basic research in the UK is done in universities. To ordinary people our top universities often seem somewhat elite and mysterious where arcane subjects are explored. Universities should foster a culture of open access and strengthen educational activities in the community and in schools.
In the past, the mark of a civilised person was an appreciation of Shakespeare, Thucydides, Rembrandt and Beethoven. Today the pursuit of science is so demanding that scientists are more likely to neglect their cultural inheritance. Perhaps, by broadening our own interests, we scientists may also help non-scientists see science more as part of our culture. Broad interests may not be directly relevant to scientific research, but they help us to remember our humanity.
Lord Robert Winston, a British professor, medical doctor, scientist, television presenter, and also a politician who sits on the Labour Party benches in the House of Lords and takes the Labour whip.