Have we learned nothing?

Have we learned nothing?

May 23, 2020, it is 1.45 am here in Hong Kong, and I just spend another day of social distancing due to the ongoing Covid19 crisis. True, the situation here in Hong Kong is not all that bad; we did have only a few new cases within the last few weeks, but the borders to China and most other countries are still closed, and I am therefore still without a job and income.

I am not much worried about my financial situation, as, in good old Swiss fashion, I made sure in good times to have some savings in bad times.

For those who know me, know that I do have a love for history and science. This has had me watching numerous videos on those topics over the past few months since this pandemic started. Just today, I enjoyed a few videos of my favorite astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson. There is one video in particular that made me wonder if humanity has learned nothing indeed from its history?

On January 23, 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a lecture at the library of Congress to the House Science and National Labs Caucus on the importance of science. I am no scientist but a human being that is continuously trying to evolve and nurture my hunger for knowledge.

After listening to this very enthusiastic and motivating speech, I stopped and had to think about what happened in the years since.

It is a very sobering process I am going through even now that I am writing these lines to you.

Let’s just take space as an example, on July 20, 1969; we landed on the moon! On September 5, 1977, we launched Voyager 1, which is today 22’219’944’662 km away from Earth (and still transmitting data back to Earth). What has happened since then? True, we had a few rockets going into space, but we never left near-earth orbit again. The Space station ISS is technically still within the Earth’s atmosphere.

Credit where credit is due, Elon Musk has sent Spaceman in a Tesla Roadster on an orbit around the sun. In other words, our greatest achievement when it comes to space exploration within the last ten years was a marketing stunt from a car company. Yes, I know, there have been other successful missions involving comets and dwarf planets. But let’s be honest, who outside of a few enthusiasts have ever heard about those missions?

Space exploration is only one example that shows how our flaming interest to explore and break boundaries is reduced to a little flicker. Whereas 50 years ago, every young person wanted to become an astronaut, an engineer, scientist, or firefighter, today’s youth is more interested in becoming an Instagram or TikTok star. I know I am harsh in my judgment, and there are still these young enthusiastic scientists and explorers. But let’s be honest; they become more and more an oddity and are being scared off by high education costs and a growing aversion against science in large parts of society.

And here is where I do ask the question; have we learned nothing from history?

Today it is not uncommon to find huge groups of people that defy science in favor of religion. How often do we hear the notion that the bible is the whole truth and that science is wrong (just look at the evolution theory as an example)?

The sad part is that this is not the first time in history that radical religion, ideology, or governments have dismissed science. And every time this happened in the past, it was the beginning of the downfall of said society. Just look at ancient China. I am sure most of you have heard of the four great inventions from China (Compass, Gunpowder, Papermaking, and Printing). As a note, I would suggest adding a fifth great invention, as Ice-cream has been invented in China too.
A thousand years ago, China was the leading society in the world, most advanced, and utterly superior to anyone else. But then innovation seized, the reason is disputed as some blame Taoism and its “Wu Wei,” others are blaming the massive amount of citizens which results in a gigantic workforce which rendered innovation unimportant.

Another example is the middle east, the cradle of humanity; still today, we use Arabic numbers. Algebra, Universities, surgery, Alcohol distillation, Petroleum just to name a few of innumerable achievements in the Arabic world. But then what happened? Why did the Golden Age of Arabic Science end? In around 800 AD, Mu’tazilism was a very Greek and rational oriented doctrine imposed by Calif Al-Mamun. However, after his death, more traditionalist and religious-oriented scholars became more influential and by 885 AD, it became even a crime to copy books of philosophy. In Islam at that time, it became the law that nothing in nature can act spontaneously and apart from God. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who wrote these words, was, in fact afraid, that people who would believe in philosophers (that’s what scientists back then were called) would replace God.

If you do follow western media and news broadcasts today, you will have to agree that there are a growing number of people that follow this path down the road that leads us away from progressive education, innovation, and towards a religion-based society.

Please do not get me wrong; I believe that religion is a beautiful thing for a person to find consolation, guidance, and inner peace. But I am afraid if we favor religion (of any kind) over science, that we will indeed fall back into the dark ages.

Science will give us the tools to evolve as a species, whereas religion can give us the guidance to do it with humility, grace, and morals.

May God be with us on our travel to the stars!



House Science & National Labs Caucus: Neil deGrasse Tyson:




Tesla Roadster

Thomas Kaufmann
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