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Science Talk

Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto: The Threatened Enlightenment

Nobel laureate Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 chemistry prize, talks with Scientific American Executive Editor Fred Guterl at the recent Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting, about the role of science in society

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:       This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by Audible.com, your source for audio books and more.  Audible.com features 100,000 titles including Walter Isaacson's biography Albert Einstein: His Life and Universe narrated by Edward Herman and Steven Hawking’s' The Theory of Everything narrated by Michael York.  Right now, Audible.com is offering a free audio book and a one-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience.  For details, go to Audible.com/sciam - S-C-I-A-M. 

Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk, posted on July 25, 2013.  I'm Steve Mirsky.  On this episode -

Harry Kroto:         A pessimist is someone who's waiting for it to rain.  I'm drenched to the skin.

Steve Mirsky:       And that is Nobel Prized winning chemist Harry Kroto.  He shared the 1996 Chemistry Nobel for the discovery of fullerenes, arrangements of carbon atoms in the form of closed shells.  The most famous fullerene is probably Buckminsterfullerene also known as the Bucky Ball c60.  The entire class of carbon structures is named for Buckminster Fuller because his geodesic dome design in Montreal has the same configuration.  Kroto was speaking to science students from all over the world at the recent Lindau Nobel Laureate's meeting in Germany. 

Scientific American's executive editor Fred Guterl was there and he spoke to Kroto after his talk.  Kroto likes to get into the role of science and society, as you'll hear.  Fred and Sir Harry were in a large hall in which the chairs were being rearranged so that's the background sound you'll notice.  We'll listen to the interview directly following this two-minute clip of Kroto talking to students that I recorded during the Lindau meeting of 2011.

Harry Kroto:         I'm gonna talk about what science is because it's a totally misunderstood sort of subject.  There are aspects of science which are important and of course we know, the body of knowledge that you learn at school, all right?  The applications of those knowledge - technology, the only thing that journalists ever ask a general 99 percent of the time.  Perhaps most important is the way that we discover new knowledge.  But for me, the most important, by far, is that it's the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability. 

Everyone should think about that.  Because then it becomes a much bigger subject.  In fact, for me, perhaps the most important subject there is.  And the ethical purpose of education must involve teaching children how they can decide what they're being told is actually true.  And that's not the case in general. 

The teaching of a skeptical, evidence-based assessment of all claims - all claims - without exception is fundamentally an intellectual integrity issue.  Without evidence, anything goes.  Think about it.  Common sense says the sun goes round the Earth.  Who agrees with me?

Look at it.  Starts over here, ends over there.  It's uncommon sense that was needed to recognize that the Earth was turning on its axis.  The uncommon sense of Copernicus, Galileo, Gendona, Bruna was burnt to death.  We had to learn to be very careful and question everything. 

Let me just check - how many of you know the evidence for Galileo to say that the Earth was going around the sun?  Put your hand up.  You've accepted it.  Almost nobody's put their hand up.  It's incredible.

Look at yourself.  You've accepted this.  You've accepted a lot of things without evidence.  Find out what the evidence is for that.  Find out what the evidence is for everything that you accept. 

Fred Guterl:         So, tell us - what are the four horsemen of the Apocalypse?  These are attitudes that are threatening -

Harry Kroto:         They're threatening the enlightenment. 

Fred Guterl:         Threatening the enlightenment.

Harry Kroto:         Yeah.  Which is the way of thinking where you don't accept a Dogma or the way you behave and act.  It's about thinking for yourself and that’s what - in the essay by Kant in What is the Enlightenment he discusses this.  So, you have to read that but I took the major - the two first sentences which really can encapsulate.  He's setting this self-imposed, mental immaturity or really philosophical thinking immaturity in that one of the big things in the USA, we need leaders.

___ there are leaders who tell - because what's the point in leading a flock of sheep?  All right so basically, what you have is that people want leaders who tell them what to do and no, we should actually have an enlightened population in which they can think and discuss rationally with the problems that they face.  A good example would be gay marry or this or these people are against it not on the basis of any thought process but in the assumption that somewhere in the 2,000 year old philosophy - mystical, religious philosophy - it says there's something which is totally - is 2,000 years old and today, we understand these things.  And we must make our decisions on the basis of rational and reasonable discussion of what the issues are and then, of course, we're not doing that.  Abortion is another one. 

I mean, I think letting - abortion's a very complex, serious issue and people who interfere with this and are responsible for the birth of children, are interfering with individuals and they now are responsible for a birth that wouldn't have occurred.  Now, those people should actually make sure that that child - in defender of the ethical issues - they must say what is their responsibility or they should be responsible to make sure that that child now is brought up in a home like their own children are brought up in and at least until the age of 18, they should be educated.  So, these are the sort of things that this group of people, these young people here, many of whom are getting into positions of responsibility, I want them to get that attitude of thinking themselves.  And not be led by political, religious or any other Dogma, but actually on the basis of truth issues or what science is, how it works.  And at the same time, when there are issues where science has nothing to say - which is the now ethical issue is - or not much to say, anyway - they will start to think, “These are complex.  There may not be a really good solution, but let's take the best solution we can for the good of society.”

Fred Guterl:         Now, this is - it seems incredible that we're fighting these battles at the moment where - at the apotheosis of the enlightenment where we've got all these accomplishments that we can see and I don't have to name them.

Harry Kroto:         Yeah.  You, apparently in the USA, have the highest percentage of religious people, dogmatized people, in the developed world.  And in the Middle East, you have along people who are following another Dogma and you've got Dogmas of all of them and obviously, it can't all be right.  I mean, this is sort of very simple, rational, issue.  But the human race seems to have a problem. 

They don't want to face - they're not interested in whether it's true or false.  And that's what I wanted to say here - that science is about what is true, what can be true and what can be true reliably.  That doesn't mean that Dogma isn't important.  One has to develop sort of social rules and these are - and I think people like Jefferson and Madison and Benjamin Franklin did that and developed some very reasonable rules.  They're about 200 or 300 years old and people in the USA are giving lip service to them to separation of church and state. 

There, in that junior ___ in Virginia which is one of the most religiously oppressed __, there is within it one of the most important statements ever made in that one's religious views should not prejudice your standing for office.

Fred Guterl:         Why, in the United States, which is a country that's based on a - we're one of the first rational constitutions, is this problem so -

Harry Kroto:         Because the large numbers of your people are illiterate and ignorant.  And that's not damning to them it's just that they then - because they don't know.  They've never read the constitution.  They don't understand it.  But partially because most - you see, it's only one percent of the scientists and then engineers; they're only one percent of the population. 

In case of the states, they're all in California, New York, Boston and maybe Chicago.  And the vast center of people who are benefitting by those centers of scientific advances but they don't care where it came from and they don't care about the philosophy that made it possible.   

Fred Guterl:         Why is climate change so polarized?

Harry Kroto:         I think it's partly because it has major implications for industry. 

Fred Guterl:         You think industry has - the disinformation campaign?

Harry Kroto:         No.  It's people make money out of energy.  The biggest one is obviously oil industry and so many of them are - if you look, you'll find out there's immense lobby by the energy producing, these sort of fuel producing companies to __ congress, but in fact, it's a very complex issue.  We don't really know whether it's dangerous or not but what I say is, “Don't do that.  Just show the evidences,” I say. 

Look, 9 out of 10 of these is indicating that we've got a problem.  And so to some extent, to avoid sort of really looking into this issue, which I think is almost impossible to do and think about because we're locked into this infrastructure of cars and oil usage and energy uses and air conditioners.  You'll die in California now if you didn't have air conditioning five miles in from the sea, right?  And so that's an inconvenient observation.  But I think the other thing is that it's those large numbers of people can actually benefit by science not understanding anything about it and today, you don't even need common sense to survive. 

In the old days, you had common sense.  You had to get the wood in for winter.  You had to make sure you had food through __ up there.  But no one now, they got electricity produced, Faraday and Maxwell and oil and stuff like that.  So, you can be an idiot and survive because you just go to McDonalds for you food and you go to work and do some sort of inane job which is nobody taking any responsibility - it's always up the line - and then you watch the Super Bowl and that's it. 

But in the old days, you really had to know how your world works.  You don't need that anymore.  So, you can spend your time listening to people like Joel Olsteen and idiots and people think - and he makes millions out of it and 35,000 in his congregation telling, “God wants you to be rich and screw the other people.”  And that's unbelievable, yet they accept it. 

Fred Guterl:         What do you make of the fact that the world is a smaller place and that science is happening in China, in the Middle East and in more places that you're -

Harry Kroto:         Well, I think they were aware of this and people aware of that science and technology can change their lives and they can look at this and hopefully recognize.  It's happened very slowly in the west - over 400 - 500 years.  I made the case that there was no science until the language of science and __.  There was empirical that you do crop rotation.  They didn't know why. 

So, knowing that you've got - that's common sense because you discover by empirical observation how things work.  You don't understand medicine until you understand blood circulation and the guy who discovered that - DeSpani, who was actually executed by Martin Luther actually - DeSpani was the first person who sought to understand about the pump of the heart and the circulation.  So, the - I don't have the next answer to everything but there are things that concern me and I wanted to point that out to this space. 

Fred Guterl:         Are you an optimist?

Harry Kroto:         Leonard Kohn said, “No, no.  I'm not a pessimist.  A pessimist is someone who's waiting for it to rain.  I'm drenched to the skin.  But,” I said, “I'm an optimist.  I'll be well out of here when the [Beep] hits the fan.”  That's my one view of optimism. 

Fred Guterl:         That's - yeah, that's not a reassuring form of optimism to me. 

Harry Kroto:         I think we have problems. 

Fred Guterl:         Yeah.

Harry Kroto:         We have problems exacerbated by Dogma.  You see that in Syria, right - you know, Shia and Sunni’s at each other's throats.  They're not discussing this on the basis on what's best for society.  We see the Tea Party in America not discussing what's best for society.  Everything that Obama's doing is necessary but all they want is to undermine everything that the Democrats are trying to do, irrespective of whether it's positive to society. 

And they will find every excuse and I think this is a terribly, terribly, dangerous time and I think it's not just in the USA because what politicians should be doing is getting together to try and solve the problems as best they can and not just stand on their Dogmatic sort of pedestals withouth ____.

Fred Guterl:         What is our most urgent problem, do you think?

Harry Kroto:         Well, I think obviously, I think our dependence probably on fossil fuel.  We're locked into that so deeply that I don't see it easily being - doing anything about it.  There's not the social will.  And I think what we're - we're like Lemmings.  Human beings are just animals who will just eat and take advantage of any source of energy until it runs out and then there'll be catastrophe. 

So, I think the sooner it comes it's always the better.  Some will survive and I mean, I was born in the first months of the war - first month and a half of the war - and I just thought, you know, 60s guy, Rolling Stones and Beatles and miniskirts and it was a fantastic time to be a student and I was so optimistic.  And as time has gone on, I just see - I just thought, “Well, you know, education would solve these problems.”  But the problems that human beings have are vernacularly sealed and that is they don't want to think if that thinking causes discomfort.  A wonderful line of Kennedy's, the - it's a great line “The comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” 

Fred Guterl:         Is there anything else - I don't want to keep you too long but is there anything else you want to say to our readers or our listeners?

Harry Kroto:         Well, I think they must - I mean, one thing that disturbs me is the public education system in the USA.  I mean, it's being destroyed, undermined by vested interests because Madison, my favorite person, was very much against religion entering into the school system but now, basically, religious schools, ever since segregation, you've got a stranglehold on many of the schools.  ___ segregation, white kids were, in droves, went out into the religious schools and picked them up.  And so the only infrastructure around when societal problems arise are some of the religious organizations, as we see in Egypt and the Middle East that the Dogma groups are this coherent philosophy of telling people what to do 'cause people want to just do things but they’re not told.  And that's pretty dangerous, as far as I'm concerned.

Steve Mirsky:       Harry Kroto's personal website with links to many of his talks is at www.Kroto - K-R-O-T-O - .info.  We'll be back right after this word from Kerry Smith at the Nature Podcast. 

Kerry Smith:        This week on the Nature Podcast - beware the next super bugs: how flatworms regrow their heads.  And the palm oil genome gives up its secrets.  More at nature.com/podcast. 

Steve Mirsky:       That's it for this episode.  Get your science news at our website - www.ScientificAmerican.com and check out the collection of Scientific American eBooks available for Kindle, the endangered Nook and IBook’s.  You can find them by going to our website then clicking on “Products” on the right, near the top and then on Scientific American e-books.  The latest e-book is on the science of education - just $3.99 wherever fine books are downloaded.  And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website.  Our Twitter name is @SciAm.  For Scientific American's Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us. 

Male:                   What are you prepared to do?

[End of Audio]
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