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How the other half lives.

At a time when shouting at each other across social media is a favourite pastime for many, its hard to see things through other people’s eyes. Its not that easy and feels like an intrusion to ask how people live. Which is why I like this feature from my favourite Institute of Facts, the Gapminder Foundation. It provides some insight into what life looks like for people around the world, how they live and what they I’ve on.

Its worth five minutes of anyones’ time: Gapminder Dollar Street

The institute also have books and videos on, “how not to be ignorant about the world” which is no bad thing when misconceptions seem to drive a lot of what’s bad in our world today. For those who don’t know the Gapminder Foundation, it was founded by an inspirational statistician (yes, there are some), called Hans Rosling. He died in 2017, but his work lives on. Which is a good thing in itself. One of the things that Rosling frequently talked about is our in built desire to think of things in a binary way: good and bad, have’s and have not’s. But its clear that it clouds our judgement and leads to the sort of division (and shouting) that we see today. As Rosling pointed out, whilst many people think of rich and poor, three quarters of the worlds’ population are neither; they live in middle income countries. So even the phrases we use, such as, “how the other half lives” can be intensely misleading. We need to think in averages and gradations. Something that comes easy to few people. Which is why the Gapminder Foundation is such a great concept, because its a place to continually go back to and remind ourselves that the world is in a better place than most of us realise and that those who say otherwise may well have other reasons for saying so.

Are we in a new Golden Age of science?

Its often the case that of the three major scientific disciplines taught in schools and university, one or other of physics, chemistry or biology comes out on top. For a long period, it seemed that physics was top dog, with its endless discoveries at a quantum scale, the continuing affirmation of Einsteins theories of relativity and the benefit of NASA space programmes. Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it would have been chemistry that was top dog, with new elements being discovered, radioactivity and crystallography giving up its secrets. And in the late 90’s and early 200’s, biology was revolutionised with genome sequencing opening up a myriad of new research options.

But if you look across the scientific landscape at the moment, has there ever been a moment when science was either more needed and, at the same time, more productive. In all the major scientific disciplines, ground breaking new work is not only pushing back the boundaries of our knowledge, but also being applied to practical problems at an ever more rapid pace. Has there ever been a better time to study science?

As we shift to a post-carbon economy, the work of chemists in battery technology and materials science will have a profound impact on the speed of transition. Environmental scientists work on ever more complex models of our planet in an attempt to halt the worst effects of global warming. Biologists have given us gene editing tools, immunotherapies and gene therapies. Physicists inch ever closer to uniting our understanding the quantum world with gravity and spacetime; LIGO has for the first time actually recorded the presence of gravitational waves. Neuroscience moves ahead in leaps and bounds, quantum computing bounds forward, robotics and artificial intelligence have moved out of the laboratory, China has joined the scientific community with resources and scientists that can only help the global search for knowledge. And so on.

A friend of mine who engages in post-doctoral research in neuroscience said to me recently, “there are a lot of smart people in the world to compete with” when we were talking about progress in science. I came away thinking that was a good thing. With global funding for science on the increase and smart people drawn to all the scientific disciplines, this golden age of science is a source of inspiration; long may it last.

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