The recent passing of Neil Armstrong — by all accounts, a humble man in spite of his historic accomplishment — reminded me that if time travel were possible, I would immediately go back to July 20, 1969 to watch the moon landing. It is estimated that over 500 million people worldwide watched Armstrong’s walk on the moon and probably millions more listened to the live radio reports. To many, Armstrong is a potent symbol of the space agspace race is gone. Some of the blame must also be placed on scientists, who often fail to see the need to communicate to the general public about science. But the fall of science from the height of the space age has much more to do with an apathetic and misinformed general public, who seem just as likely to believe quacks as legitimate researchers.
And poor science education is not limited to average citizens; in fact a hostility towards science seems to have infiltrated the national Republican Party. In the recent outcry over Missouri representative Todd Akin’s offensive and idiotic comment that “legitimate rape” will rarely lead to pregnancy, one embarrassing fact that did not get sufficient attention is that Akin serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. This committee has several Republican members who openly ignore the wealth of evidence supporting man-made climate change. Unlike in 2008, the recently released Republican Party platform does not have a section addressing climate change at all and preemptively rejects any new greenhouse gas regulations by the EPA. This is a shame because the GOP wasn’t always so hostile to research.
Unfortunately, this mixture of hostility and apathy extends to the Yale campus. In the months to come, you will undoubtedly see an op-ed or two bemoaning the science requirement at Yale. I have been told that there is no point to a science requirement when it is highly likely that the vast majority of Yalies believe in evolution and human-caused global warming. Belief is not sufficient; those who cannot explain some of the evidence that supports the theory of natural selection are hardly better than those who adamantly reject it. There is no better arena to reinforce the importance of the scientific method and explain important scientific findings than science classes themselves. In an era when the leadership of an entire political party routinely downplays or rejects science, it is irresponsible to declare required collegiate science education to be worthless.
I don’t want to be a complete downer. The recent excitement surrounding the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars shows that we can still be inspired by science. I defy anybody to not be moved when watching the Youtube video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as Curiosity successfully landed — no, seriously, if you haven’t watched it go watch it now. The drive, the teamwork and the ingenuity that characterized the space race can be captured again, but doing so will require the participation of our entire society. Yale aims to educate the next generation of leaders and critical thinkers and science must be part of this. It’s not about knowing all the facts — it’s about wanting to. Our generation should have many more Mars rover moments — moments that our children and our grandchildren will wish they could time-travel to, but it is up to us to make those moments possible.