SCIENCE AND LIFE

The good thing about science is that it is always changing. The more experts observe the world around us and try to understand it, the more they discover and share with the rest of us. From the tiniest elements of creation—the particles from which atoms are made—to the vastness that contains galaxies beyond number, the universe is filled with marvels. New living beings are frequently found in the depths of the oceans, the hearts of the rain forests, and even in our own backyards. Health and disease, gladness and depression, the quality of our environment—they all matter to us, and they all are subject to study, observation, experiment, and the other tools of science. These tools help improve our lives and our care of the world around us.

The bad thing about science is that it is always changing. Coffee and dark chocolate and red wine are bad for us, except when they are good for us. The innards of the atom and the inhabitants of this planet require further study. What seemed true yesterday might be disproved today; what seems true today might be shown to have been mistaken by tomorrow. Science itself is a useful tool for our lives, but it is only a tool. Science lacks the authority and stability to be a foundation for our lives.

When I was young, my parents invested in several series of books. They bought Funk &Wagnall’s encyclopedia set, one volume at a time. They also bought reference books on their hobbies, photography and sewing, that came out once a month for a year or two. To top it all, my parents bought the LIFE set of books about science—those colorful volumes that could be found in many living rooms and studies a number of years ago. I did a fair amount of research in those LIFE books, both for school assignments and for casual learning. As an adult, I was able to obtain a set of the same books for my family library. They look nice on the shelf, but they are heavy to move, and the science in them is old. They are useful to learn the history of science, but they cannot compete with the Internet for up-to-date descriptions of scientific theory and investigation. This reality was reinforced this month when I picked up one of those LIFE books and started reading it from page one.

This book from the LIFE Nature Library, is called “The Poles.” At describes the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the Earth, detailing climate, flora and fauna, human exploration and inhabitation, and research endeavors in the far north and the far south. I was fascinated to learn that the South Pole is colder than the North Pole because of the continent Antarctica; the ocean under the polar ice in the north moderates the temperature of the northern region. Also, because the polar ice sheet moves and shatters and reforms, it is difficult to establish the location of the North Pole at any given time—a flag planted there this summer might be several miles away from the Pole in the future. This book, which was published in 1962, has much interesting information about the polar regions, but science has learned far more information in the past sixty years. For that matter, accounts of human exploration of the north have been reviewed and found inaccurate; Robert Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1908, even though the LIFE editors were still willing to hand him the prize as recently as 1962.

Even sixty years ago, scientists studying Greenland and Antarctica had uncovered evidence that these bodies of land once supported “warm forests and plains.” This led the editors of “The Poles” to write these words in the third paragraph of their introduction to their book: “Today we are entering an era of unlimited power, when science may be able to alter the temperature balance and convert the cold regions to hospitable, productive ones. To do this would require the greatest political courage, for the rewards certainly would not be equally divided over all political borders. But if it were done, the problem of containing and feeding future generations could be solved. Unfortunately we as a nation are not yet confronted with the problem and we give it only token attention; but the world storms generated by hunger are brewing.”

Need I say more? J.