Following the science…?

Melting ice caps

As a scientist, albeit astrophysics, I find the government’s subtle changes of language rather telling.  Last year they were “following the science”; earlier this year they were “listening to the scientists”; today they are “taking decisions based on the data…”.  And have you noticed how anthropogenic climate change now, after COP26, has no attention or focus from the government?

Science has been used for good and bad throughout history and it is interesting to see how the public perception of science and scientists can, and does, change. The current public perception of that amorphous group ‘scientists’ reminds me of the stories of Anaxagoras and Socrates.

Anaxagoras born circa 500-480BC was one of the earliest of the classical Greek philosophers. He was the first to put forward a coherent cosmology and explanation for the nature of the Sun, proposing that it was a red-hot rock greater in size than that of Greece and the Peloponnese.

He reasoned that the stars were of the same nature as the Sun, but that they were so far away we do not feel their heat, and he correctly identified that the Moon shines only by reflecting sunlight. He is also credited with the first correct explanation of how eclipses occur. Renowned for several erudite quotations, perhaps his most famous is:  

“Everything has a natural explanation.  The Moon is not a god but a great rock and the Sun a hot rock”

Anaxagoras by Eduard Lebiedzki,
after a design by Carl Rahl

But being smart isn’t always a good thing; charged with and put on trial for impiety (lack of appropriate respect of the sacred), Anaxagoras was banished from Athens. Exiled to the city of Lampsacus (near to the current day Lapseki), he died there around 428BC

Not so ‘lucky’, several years later his contemporary, Socrates, was also charged with impiety but by then Athenian authorities had clearly had enough of ‘experts’ and he was executed in 399BC.

Anaxagoras has an asteroid named in honour; 4180 Anaxagoras is a Main Belt asteroid discovered in 1960.  The unfortunate Socrates has no asteroid named after him, reinforcing the saying: ‘life just isn’t fair’, which has clearly been around for thousands of years!

The moral of the tale: science when ‘done’ well is a fundamental building block of our civilisation and understanding. But even if they’re completely right, scientists are not always appreciated. Which is indeed blooming unfair!! 

Governments and politicians spin and lie with impunity; if a scientist fabricates their data, they are ostracised by their peers and their career is over. Who would you rather put your faith in?

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