Shattering the silos becomes even more crucial in times of radical change like the present, Assisi says. (Shutterstock)
Shattering the silos becomes even more crucial in times of radical change like the present, Assisi says. (Shutterstock)

Science is the alphabet of the future: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi

It concerns me when youngsters speak of the humanities as a silo. Science, tech and data already serve as the base of every discipline.
By Charles Assisi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 15, 2021 12:08 PM IST

Like many homes in India today, mine is a place where distraught children are wondering aloud what their academic future will look like, amid more rounds of lockdowns and postponed admissions. Until not so long ago, my 15-year-old daughter was clear the humanities were her calling. This week, I figured it was time to speak to her again and explain why I think she should change her mind.

The thing is, she knows I am biased towards the sciences. I believe the Age of Biology is truly upon us. Whatever her calling, I have said to her in the past, it is in her best interests to get a grounding in the sciences. My belief has been the source of many arguments at home (the wife disagrees, strongly). But given the mathematical models available to us, and given where we are, I am convinced it is not a notion that can be dismissed.

The models have it that the pandemic, left relatively unchecked as it is now, could claim the lives of over 1 million Indians between August and September alone. We have already reached the point where we can no longer comprehend the losses, let alone grieve over them or condole with each other.

In his 2020 book Age of Pandemics (1817-1920): How They Shaped India and the World, the economist and social scientist Chinmay Tumbe offers pointers on what we can expect next. His research has it that India was also the country worst hit by the influenza pandemic of 1918, which claimed an estimated 20 million lives on the subcontinent alone — more than the death count attributed worldwide to battle casualties in World War I.

He traces how that disaster set the stage for other narratives, including the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi, the fall of the British Empire, reforms in food supply management and the rise of labour unions. Though so many lives were lost, no memorials were erected to those who died in that pandemic. After it had subsided, all people wanted was a return to normal. This is what most people yearn for now. But I believe there is no going back to normal after something like this.

Some change is irreversible. The things that changed after 1918, as well as after the plague and cholera pandemics of the previous century -- those things never changed back. Our cities were altered forever; as was our politics. Economies went through hell and were reborn.

We’re seeing a similar flux now. Journalists, political scientists and historians will look back on this time as one of those turning points. And I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that our children land on their feet in the new world born out of the one we knew.

Take, for example, the speed at which vaccines have emerged to combat Covid-19. Virologists had predicted a pandemic and immunologists had been at work to create vaccines in anticipation. The jabs some are receiving now have been created by editing genetic code using a scientific development called CRISPR.

The implications of gene editing have been discussed and debated widely in academic circles. But now that we are getting jabbed with a vaccine created on the back of this science, it is inevitable that it will find new applications, and almost certain that it will explode into the public domain. CRISPR can be deployed to edit genes and make unborn children less vulnerable to diseases such as AIDS, cancer, sickle-cell anaemia, perhaps even conditions such as autism. We stand at an inflection point where genetic material can be read to predict traits ranging from the colour of a child’s eyes to their likely IQ or propensity towards depression as an adult. Is it right? Is it ethical? Quite honestly, I don’t know.

What I do know is that this is not an ideal time to spend one’s formative, foundational years studying the humanities exclusively. Whatever the dream — whether it is to be a renowned writer, historian or psychologist; biologist, doctor or entrepreneur — the building blocks will necessarily involve the sciences. Either in the form of big data or new technology, evolving scientific developments or changing societal constructs as a result of those developments.

To begin addressing the real questions of their times, the adults of the future will need to understand these building blocks. To my mind, this is not optional; in the same way that learning the alphabet is not optional. The sciences are not a silo, they are already acting as the base of every discipline. Those are the arguments I submitted to my daughter.

She heard me out this time. I’ve left it to her, now, to mull it over and decide.

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