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Why particle physics is less important than Putin

Published: March 14, 2014
Section: Opinions

Under the fluorescent lights of the library, drowning in a sea of vector notation, it is easy to forget that there is a real world out there. It seems as nothing else could matter but solving the problem correctly. Forgetting about the world in a brief math-induced haze, however, is vastly different from not caring about life outside science. Nevertheless, I have had several conversations this past week with fellow science majors about how they do not think it is important to know about life outside the lab. This is my humble plea as to why this should change.

Firstly, I concede it is incredibly difficult to stay informed about current events. The majority of Brandeis students do not subscribe to a regular print newspaper, nor would I expect anyone to have the time to read an entire copy of The Wall Street Journal. Additionally, I do not think it is wrong to assume that most Brandeis students do not watch the news regularly. My dad once asked me what channel the local Waltham news was, and I actually laughed aloud, startled by how ridiculous this otherwise innocuous question seemed.

Despite the inaccessibility of traditional news sources, no one on this campus has an excuse to not read the news. We are all part of Generation Y. All of us have access to the Internet. As a science major myself, I can attest to the sheer amount of time I spend on the Internet. A tab of physics problems slowly evolves into ten tabs ranging from a Buzzfeed quiz I will take no matter how dumb it is, to serious comparison shopping of ironic cat sweaters.

I think it would be reasonable to suggest that in between massive procrastination, we should all open a tab of a news source of choice. It will take five minutes to skim the headlines, read a story or two, and to be marginally more aware than we were before. I am also not opposed to the gathering of news via social media. This is a surprisingly radical stance, but Twitter is a great platform for news. It allows you to follow journalists, major news organizations, opinion writers, and your intense Libertarian friend from high school. The wide range of sources and the instantaneous nature of these sources is where modern news lives.

More than just having the ability to be informed, however, I believe that scientists should want to be informed. Science is irrevocably tied to the course of the world. Pragmatically, scientists should care because their scientific fates are governed by federal and university grants. A topical example is Putin and Ukraine. The destiny of Ukraine is entangled in the greater destiny of the European Union. It is a fragile system, where minor political changes can bring major international upheavals. If something goes awry as Putin involves himself in Ukrainian affairs, the entire European political system could be thrown off track. This political system inevitably includes the economy. As the world economy ebbs and flows, so does science funding. In times of recession, it is the unfortunate truth that the American government will care less about funding particle physics than they will care about the national reserves. In times of war, defense funding skyrockets, and science funding is syphoned into missiles and bombs.

Even more than simply being practical, don’t we all have a duty to care for each other? I am sure you have heard the saying that ignorance is bliss. I am much more likely, however, to side with the banner that FMLA displays in the SCC, which declares ignorance is privilege. We are all extraordinarily lucky to attend Brandeis, to be able to have dreams of finishing our Ph.D. in biochemistry or going to medical school. Globally, civil war, gang violence, or genocide disrupts dreams of people not as lucky as we are. Basking in our privileged safety is ungrateful. With great power comes great responsibility. I am not entreating you to know or care about everything. That is exhausting. Just pick one or two issues to know and care about to start truly meaningful change.

I have heard several reactions to this from fellow scientists. The first is, of course, that their research will help better the lives of all those around them. In all brutal honesty, this is probably an unrealistic claim. There is a very likely chance that your research may be wholly irrelevant to the greater human experience on earth. Algebraic topology is nifty and a worthwhile academic pursuit, but it is not going to end a dictatorship. I fully recognize your right to pursue your own happiness and to study something that you enjoy, but do not inflate your research to grandiose levels.

This leads me to the second typical comment from my science major friends when I bring up the subject: that we should all strive for happiness, and that if current events do not make us happy, why bother with them? To this, I have two responses. Firstly, that is a horribly insensitive thing to say. Why are you so important that we should value your happiness over that of a child in Syria? Secondly, I think that this is an illogical statement. Caring about the world is the beginning of doing something to better the world. If every other human being in the world were a degree happier, your life would be better. There would be less crime, fewer crotchety professors and no more sadistically ridiculous problem sets. I cannot think of anything that would make a science major happier.

So, fellow science majors, pull your heads out of your biology textbooks every once in a while. Look at the sky, breathe in the unpolluted air, and appreciate how truly beautiful the world is. And then, after you fully appreciate the world, do something to keep it beautiful. It is your responsibility and your vocation as scientists, and I expect as Brandeis students, that you will do nothing less than to rise to the occasion.