Tuesday, May 26, 2009

For the sake of progress

It was a microbiology lecture and we noticed in one of the lecture slides, there was a picture of a fridge. We were wondering why would there be a picture of a fridge in a microbiology class especially when we thought the latest fridges were designed to keep food fresher for longer. Then the professor reaches the slide and says

This is a fridge made in Japan which can not only cool food, but also keep food warm so that husbands who come back home late from work can have a nice hot meal before going to bed.

Half the class was awestruck by the design and the idea. Until he said...

Think about this for a minute, a fridge connected to a warm incubator, at temperatures ideal for microbial growth

The whole class (full of microbiology experts) got grossed out. Then he proceeded to say

Technological advances are aimed at making our lives easier and more comfortable. But what we don't realise is that each time we introduce something new, we are modifying the environment around us. This new fridge may give nice and warm dinners, but it can also give some unknown microbe which has been incubating with your food. Today we see the increase in the number of infectious diseases, new and re-emergent. Why do you think this is? With the introduction of the plane, we made travel faster, but we also gave a new route of transmission for the spread of diseases. Now anything can become pandemic

A chill down our spine.

It got me thinking. All new technology poses a threat to the natural order of things, not just microbiology, but other things too like environment, and our very own health. The system that nature has devised with such care is so precise. Take a look at this planet, all the living beings that roam, the plants that grow, look at how everything is interconnected, look at not just how we are connected to each other through the worldwide web, look at how we are connected to this planet, the whole system. Any new technology will always have two faces to it, a positive impact on our lives as well as a negative impact. Nuclear power gave us an alternate energy source, but it also gave us the atom bomb. And this particular exam is the most cliched and over-used to prove this point. There are so many more.

We can't stop progress. We need it. As a species, I don't think we can live without it. We need the comfort. We need the speed. I don't exactly know why. But for some reason we do. I know that I do. I cannot imagine my life without the internet, cell phones, cars and modern medicine. I don't even know if I would have dared to venture out of my country if I wasn't assured of being within reach of my family every single day via phone and internet. I would not have opted to apply to the US for Ph.D out of fear of distance from my home. And that's a fact.

As a budding scientist, I am forced to ask the question...

Where so we decide that progress has to be nurtured for the benefit of mankind or even better... for the benefit of this planet? And where does progress, for the sake of progress, need to be nipped in the bud? (a line that some of my fellow Harry Potter fans should recognize!)

If progress is a double edged sword, where do I draw the line? How do I decide what kind of science I want to pursue for my Ph.D, my post doc and then later, to dedicate my life to? What kind of impact will my life have in the world? Will my science make it a better place.... or worse?

P.S. An idea that I came across in a Michael Crichton book remains one of my most favourite... This planet and its living system were here before us, constantly evolving and adapting, and will surely survive any folly of mankind. The question is never really whether we are destroying the planet, the question is, are we destroying ourselves... It's kinda humbling to look at it this way, isn't it?

1 comment:

Clueless said...

Interesting post. And definitely something worth thinking about. I don't know the answer either ... at what stage do things balance each other out? I like the Crichton idea too ... if only we could know for sure that life works that way!