The true men of action of our time, those who transform the world, are not the politicians and statesmen but the scientists . . . When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.
- W. H. Auden
Humanity’s best hope for the future is, as it has long been, science. Previous plagues such as the various waves of Black Death left medieval humanity with no hope beyond the solace of futile prayer and worse-than-futile witch-burning. Much the same was true of England’s Great Plague of 1665–7. Yet that terrible episode led to the Lincolnshire lockdown and annus mirabilis of the greatest scientist of the age, perhaps of any age. Still in his early twenties, in that astonishingly short time while exiled to Woolsthorpe Manor, Isaac Newton invented calculus, discovered the true nature of colour, and proposed the laws of motion and universal gravitation which are still used to slingshot spacecraft around the inner planets en route to the outer ones. Stephen Hawking, Newton’s great successor as Lucasian Professor, endured a kind of exile in a lockdown of the body for most of his productive life. Would Newton have been so productive if he had had no reason to break away from normal life in Cambridge? We cannot know, but may plausibly argue that the unspeakable horrors of bubonic plague deserve some back-handed credit.
Our current worldwide plague, too, may have hidden benefits. Others have speculated that, having learned that we can work productively without the daily commute to the office, and that you can convene a meeting over the internet rather than round a table, these habits may persist – with benefit to our quality of life and air. But I want to mention a more specific benefit. The science that Covid-19 has provoked.
Looking beyond this particular virus, the techniques developed to make messenger RNA vaccines can be generalized to future vaccines against other viruses. Perhaps also against cancer. Such future vaccines might even be swiftly edited to crush rapidly changing viruses like those responsible for the notoriously heterogeneous ‘common cold’ – and not only those versions which actually are coronaviruses. The point is that as soon as the enemy’s genetic code has been sequenced, the data can be fed into the vaccine production protocol with near-instant results. The immune system troops are instantly informed of enemy plans as if by a molecular Bletchley Park. The phrase ‘roll out’ will seem less of a cliché.
And of course, when the world breathes again, in 2022 if not before, the heroes of the hour will be the scientists: the men and – especially, as it happens – the women who rose to the occasion and developed at least three effective vaccines with astonishing speed. They built on the spectacular discovery by Francis Crick, James Watson, Fred Sanger and their successors throughout the world that molecular genetics is a form of digital information technology. Today’s vaccine developers couldn’t have proceeded with such speed but for the early sequencing and sharing of the virus’s digital code by colleagues in China. I stress ‘sharing’, for an altruistic readiness to share information is one of academic science’s great virtues. Not, incidentally, a virtue conspicuously displayed by Isaac Newton, who could be ungenerously possessive of his ideas. Nor, for more pardonable reasons, is it a typical virtue of commercial scientists, inventors and engineers, whose very livelihoods depend upon jealously guarding their ideas – that’s what patents are for. A truly honourable exception is Elon Musk, who released the Tesla electric car company’s patents to the world because he altruistically preferred that rival car manufacturers should switch to clean electric cars rather than continue polluting the world with petrol and diesel vehicles. This, too, is perhaps a hopeful augury of a cleaner future, increasingly free of pollution by oil and by the malign influence of oil-rich regimes such as Saudi Arabia.
But above all science gives me hope, not just because of the problems it can solve – must solve if civilized life is to continue – but because of its contribution to civilized values themselves. Science joins the arts, music and literature as one of the great pillars of civilization. Science emplaces our very existence in time (13.77 billion years after the origin of all things) and space (third planet in orbit around the yellow dwarf star Sol, in one spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy). Science tells us not only where and when we exist but why. We are evolved survival machines built by our inherited DNA for the purpose of bequeathing its digitally coded information to future generations. And, lest that sound like a less than noble purpose, unworthy to count as a pillar of civilization, it is of course fully compatible with the setting up, by our evolved big brains, of purposes and goals of our own – including enrichment by the other noble pillars.
It is science that will save us – if anything can – from the looming disaster of climate change. It is medical science that will save our lives. It is agricultural science that will feed the world. And academic science that will continue to feed our minds and our aspirations as we reach deep into the large-scale grandeur of the universe, the small-scale enigma of the quantum and the enticing complexity of life. It is science that gives me hope for the future.
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Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.
Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin
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