Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

Science and Technology: To what will they lead us?

ART McDONALD, Director, Sudbury Neutrino Observatory

I’m going to try and pick up on a few of the things that Sir John has mentioned.

In particular, I’d like to discuss the relationship between science and technology – the patterns that develop between science and technology – and what implications that might have for human development.

I’d also like to go back to the ethical questions Sir John mentioned.

First, let’s try to get our definitions clear.

People who are involved in science and technology usually have one of two motives. They’re either trying to understand our universe more completely and, therefore, are involved in what we typically refer to as pure science. Or, they’re attempting to improve the quality of life in our world, in which case they’re involved in applied science or technology.

What I would like to note is that these two activities – these two areas of study – are very supportive of each other and there is a sort of cyclical situation that develops in which advances in one area enable advances in the other in both directions.

Let me give you a few examples.

The example that Sir John mentioned of computers is very interesting if you look at it in a bit of detail. There was a transition that was made from vacuum tube technology to transistors, or silicon-based technology.

Following that there was a rather remarkable period of development that we’re still in, characterized by what’s referred to as Moore’s Law in which, quite remarkably, every 18 months the speed and, hence, the capability of computers doubles.

That’s been going on in a very straight forward way since about 1970.

The reason for this is that the size of the structures on the silicon are essentially cut in half every 18 months by the improvement in the technology, always using the same basic science.

You simply have to project that and ask: when do you reach atomic dimensions? That’s the point at which it’s all going to change [and] you’ll need some new science, the types of things Sir John mentioned where you’re automatically involved in quantum mechanical sort of questions because you’re at atomic dimensions.

And the answer to that is about 15 years from now. You just use Moore’s Law and you project that.

The remarkable progress we’ve had as a result of this doubling in computer capacity every 18 months is bound to stop at that point, unless we have new science, new ideas in science that enable us to then exploit them in applied science or technology to continue this improvement in the quality of life that arises from the developments in computers.

That’s an example [of] where technology requires science and you know it’s going to require science.

Sometimes it happens that you’re doing something in the pure science area and serendipitously you end up with something which is of great value for quality of life, or could be.

For example, when I was at Princeton in the 1980s our group developed polarized helium-free gas, because we were interested in the most basic studies. We wanted to know whether the laws of physics at the microscopic level behave exactly the same if you reflect everything in a mirror or if you reverse time.

We produced this assembly of spinning helium nuclei with their spins lined up – about 70 per cent of them lined up – and about 1,000 times more of them than had previously been produced. And we did our experiments and they were very interesting from a pure science point of view.

However, since then the group at Princeton has taken this technology, which can be used in a way similar to MRI, [a step] further. In MRI, [for example] you line up hydrogen atoms by putting them in a large magnetic field and then you flip them over with a radio frequency pulse and you know, therefore, where the hydrogen is.

In the [Princeton] case you’ve got 70 per cent of the helium nuclei already lined and, if someone breathes it in, you can produce a very accurate image of lungs. In fact, it’s in clinical trials now.

Now this is pure science developing something for its own purposes that eventually will be valuable for quality of life.

Let me give you an example in which applied science, or technology, enables you to do pure science better. And that example is our project, called the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory.

This project uses frontier technology in a number of areas to attempt to address some of most fundamental questions that Sir John referred to, ranging from the microscopic area of particle physics to cosmology and astrophysics. We use microscopic particles called neutrinos as a [new] way of studying the universe. Neutrinos, along with electrons and quarks, are thought to be the basic building blocks from which you build up everything else.

Much as we heard last evening that the optical astronomers go to a mountain top in Hawaii to get away from the city lights and, therefore, get away from the background processes, we go two kilometers underground in a very active nickel mine near Sudbury in order to do our experiment.

We’re trying to study things that are very similar to the sorts of things that the people on the mountain top in Hawaii are trying to study.

We’re doing it with a new probe; a new way of studying the universe.

These neutrinos are quite unique and, yet as basic building blocks, are the least understood of the basic building blocks because they’re so hard to detect. They’ll go through a light year of lead with only a 50 per cent chance of striking one atom and stopping. In order to detect them you’ve got to go to rather heroic lengths.

We have 1,000 tonnes of heavy water. We have a detector the size of a 10-storey building, two kilometers underground.

We have been extremely careful to restrict radioactivity so that we have, we think, the lowest radioactivity point that has ever been created. Everyone who constructed the laboratory took a shower when they arrived at the door and put on clean, lint-free clothing in order to do their work.

We’ve gone two kilometers underground to avoid cosmic rays which, if we had built our detector on the surface of the Earth, would have made it glow like the Northern Lights.

We’ve had to use a wide variety of new technologies.

We had to use the latest in geo-technology to excavate; ultra-sensitive techniques for the measurement of radioactivity, fast electronics, [and] of course the heavy water itself, produced in Bruce, which is made by sophisticated chemical processes.

All of this wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. Technology development has made it possible.

Yet, what we’re trying to do is very pure science.

We’re trying to understand where neutrinos fit into the basic science at the most microscopic level. Do they have a mass? Do they change from the type of neutrino produced in the core of the Sun – and they are produced prolifically there – to one of the other two types of neutrinos we know exist?

These questions are very important in terms of placing neutrinos within the hopefully, eventually understood theory of everything at the most microscopic level. We know that there were more neutrinos produced at the time of the big bang than any other particle, other than protons of light.

So, if they have even a tiny mass then their gravitational attraction for the rest of the universe can have a substantial effect on its evolution. They could be a part of the dark matter that Professor Percy referred to last night.

We can also use them to understand these energy generation processes that are powering the Sun and which, of course, are responsible for life on Earth and also are responsible for the generation of the elements from which we are made.

So, these are very fundamental questions. They’re made possible by breakthroughs in technology, but they have the purest science motivations. They’re made possible today and, perhaps, they can add a few bits to the set of information that’s necessary to try to go forward on the intellectual exercise of trying to understand our universe which, as Sir John mentioned, is certainly far from complete today.

We can also predict that there will be improvements in applied science and technology as we go forward. Some of them have already been mentioned.

In general, if you ask, where is the biggest impact going to take place in the future? It’s probably in the understanding of materials, how materials work.

It’s not so much at getting to the microscopic level, as much as it is using what we know at the microscopic level – at the level of atoms – to understand materials better, to understand how to work with quantum mechanical materials.

You could think that there’s a reasonable possibility that the sort of revolutionary effects that occurred in optics – the collective phenomena associated with the laser – might possibly happen in materials in the sense of collective phenomena among electrons, which are really the active elements in materials.

Superconductivity, for example, is a process which involves collective actions of pairing of electrons. Superconductivity would make a significant effect on our technology if it occurred in materials that operate at room temperature, rather than at liquid helium temperatures. And it’s not unreasonable to think of that.

All kinds of ideas will come forward, but predominantly I think the breakthrough areas will be in materials and understanding of how electrons relate to that.

I’d like to finish up with a point relating to Sir John’s statement that pure science is ethically neutral, which I certainly agree with.

I’d like to give you an example of how you can know that is true.

Pure science has really transcended political boundaries. The exchange of information in pure science has been world-wide and complete. Even at the height of the Cold War it was possible to interact across that Iron Curtain with the exchange of information in a very free way.

I think the reason why this happens is that pure science is something that gets the human psyche in way which I would say is analogous to fine art; that is, understanding our universe is a basic human desire.

It’s something that is universal and transcends political boundaries and philosophies. That’s perhaps why one could regard it as ethically neutral.

When you get into questions of applied science, you’re asking how are you going to direct your activity towards the improvement of the quality of life.

You have to ask the question: what is the quality of life that you want?

Now you get into ethical questions, political questions, philosophical questions, economic questions and you have to approach the topics with those things in mind.

It is, however, nice to think there’s at least one thing upon which we can all agree. I would say that pure science and attempting to understand our universe is one of those things upon which most humans, from the beginning of time, can agree is a worthwhile exercise.

However, it’s important that we address these questions of how you do applied science. We have to answer and set directions, as Sir John said, for what the ethical correct way to do things will be.

And we’ve got to do it across different societies that have different ideas of what is, in fact, ethical. That’s what makes it very difficult.

Let me finish with a thought I first heard from Dr. Louis Leakey in 1968.

He had just discovered an extinct type of early human that had a specialized, well-developed jaw and very small brain. The jaw was valuable in terms of where that type of human was living, but it apparently became extinct because of its small brain.

Dr. Leakey pointed out that we appear to have survived through our overspecialization in the size of our brain and warned that we have to be careful because we may end up becoming extinct unless we use that brain in a sensible way.

I think we can obtain information about our universe and agree it’s valuable information we would like to have. It’s how we apply that information is where the use of our brains is very important. And that’s why the question of ethics and the development of the proper quality of life is what we should be considering.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference