Our brush with the scientist

The change induced by Covid19 is about to severely test the capacity of the political process to manage large-scale systems. But innovation offers hope.

Weary of isolation and talk of societal change, imagine yourself in the days of Jane Austen — visiting Aunt Sarah in a nearby village was torturous, if not entirely out of the question. Given the pitiful state of the busiest roads during the Regency era — were never able to travel more than 20 km from their place of residence! (Has a familiar ring?). And even then they had to deal with roads that were quagmires after heavy rain or breathe in choking dust or worse, face the prospect of encountering highwaymen.

In case of conflict, innovate

These conditions have also weighed on the transport of coal from collieries to ports to exploit an unprecedented innovation – steam cotton mills and provide heating and cooking in the last decades of the Little Ice Age. But there was no shortage of engineering and metallurgical ingenuity: the wagons were built using first coiled cast iron wheels on planks of wood, then coiled wrought iron rails, then the combination. And the two elements, steam locomotives and rails, merged.

Breaking Austen’s Isolation

This evolution in itself was to break the pervasive isolation. In a relatively short period of time, railroads sprang up across the country in what felt like an accelerated streak of 30 to 50 years. Mobility exploded when new lines entered cities or their neighborhoods. And, as the industrial revolution gained momentum, they encouraged immigration to the large, factory-rich centers. No greater change could be imagined as remote seashores could now be visited by low cost day trip trains…there was a huge mass market for people traveling third class, when they forced the railway companies to provide cheap tickets.

(A strange parallel perhaps with the extension of the NBN to regional Australia?).

More than a “shift”

The far-reaching innovations of these pioneering Victorian engineers — like Isambard Brunel and Robert Stevenson — are reflected in the laboratory today revolutionary technologies such as highway electrification, lithium-iron batteries, green hydrogen, AI and mRNA vaccines. Essentially these are @ ladder, already fed or about to feed, even in everyday life. Increasingly, — new products move from prototypes to mature technologies in ever shorter time frames. Among which comes technical obsolescence—like that digital camera hidden in a drawer somewhere, rendered surplus to the demands of i-phones. No less, fossil-fuel cars are now destined to suffer a similar fate (a landscape where there will be virtually none of Scott Morrison’s gears).

So many moving parts

To be fair, these innovations turn into a world steeped in complexity, including a similar mess when it comes to Covid19 measures. The CDC’s Fauci, for example, asked to comment on the omicron becoming endemic as the new normal confessed that

There were too many unknowns. We do not know the number of people in the country who have no experience with the virus, who have not been vaccinated or infected. We also don’t know what level of protection an Omicron infection might provide against the next variant. “Because we will undoubtedly have a next variant”,

…. a byproduct of being at a frontier of knowledge – a place familiar to scientists but where the public rarely, if ever, gets a chance to go.

There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”.

Anthony Fauci was right! It’s a tricky business with many variables and Darwinian forces in their mysterious ways. Thinking styles where processes are seen as linear, consistent with ideas about the value of human intuition and opposed to binary interpretation, lack rigor, conceptually belong in the drawer next to these digital cameras.

Right now we have a juxtaposition—two large-scale systems that function like backyard escapes–one geologic system, due to explosive population growth, poor emissions management, and, in with regard to viruses, the invasion of natural habitats.

Apply innovative approaches

The decade advanced technologies now at scale, are integral to controlling these diseases, for example mRNA vaccines to address the risk of future zoonotic viruses; lithium-iron solid states for highway electrification and grid transition; AI to identify new pathways to mend our frayed connection to the natural world

Inspired by McKinsey’s Global Institute:

Achieve net zero (about COP26) will require go beyond orthodoxies and traditional ways of working and the constructive actions taken during the pandemic have demonstrated the world’s ability to innovate and respond at scale to support both lives and livelihoods..

Thought leadership

In Australia, opportunities will only be fully realized if real points of failure are discussed — the lack of scientific training among our MPs in particular. Ministers, is this a concern for beginners, which extends to mainstream media?

STEM (or better yet, STEAM) offers the promise of orienting new generations towards science and innovation, but nothing beats filling contemporary leadership positions with those who know the time for science is here!

Dr Peter Fisher is an Honorary Fellow and a member of the Vice-Chancellor’s Scholars Group at the University of Melbourne.

Image: Space-time stretching: The excursion train provided access to hitherto inexperienced places for ‘ordinary people’ do we traverse a space something similar?. Source: A depiction of an excursion train – “The River Wall at Wylam Scars, Newcastle & Carlisle Railway, 1836” by H Griffiths (image SSPL 10301481).

An edited version of this article has appeared in IA.

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