The Enlightenment and Education

Co-presented with the School of Physics, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney

4 October, 2011
Sir Harold Kroto, Florida State University


Prior to the age of Galileo everyday living depended on common sense experience. To survive it was really not necessary to know that it was because the Earth was a sphere turning on its axis that the Sun appeared to circle the Earth. However since then doubt-based philosophy has flowered and intelligent people have recognized that evidence is absolutely necessary for the determination of what can be considered true with any degree of reliability.

By and large most when they think about such contributions of science from penicillin to electricity would say that the beneficial applications have greatly outweighed the detrimental ones. Whether this will hold true in the future remains to be seen. As the 21st Century opens up a major exciting new perspective has developed called Nanoscience which is uncovering exciting new phenomena which promise paradigm shifting applications – Nanotechnology. These advances are really not new as the living process has already, aeons ago, developed minute nanoscale devices in fact molecular machines such as tiny electric motors which are vital to the ways our bodies function. We already know from recent chemical discoveries such as the fullerenes and nanotubes that it should be possible to create materials with phenomenal tensile strength and electrical behavior as well as devices the size of a wrist watch that have supercomputer capability. However major technological hurdles need to be overcome before these exciting applications are likely to be realized.

As we start to make these advances a curious phenomenon has started to appear and it is an antiscientific movement operating on many fronts. The evidence-based philosophy which has been so incredibly successful in revolutionising all aspects of our world is also uncovering some alarming problems ranging from serious worries about the impact of humans on the environment and the sustainability of the human race as well as conflicts with the powerful sociopolitical dogmas that have controlled society heretofore. Scientific prediction is based on careful analysis of evidence and involves projections to assess what might happen in the future. Such predictions are subject to intrinsic degrees of uncertainty, the more complicated the problem and the longer term the projection, the less certain we can be. There is a general unwillingness to accept that there may be problems ahead for the very survival of the human race and furthermore some of our traditionally held views may not stand up to the rigorous analysis that Natural Philosophy demands.

There is no historical evidence that the human race has ever worried effectively about our long term future or indeed that we can rely on politicians or society in general to address seriously the sustainability issues we may be facing. Part of the problem lies in the intrinsic aspect of science that in complex situations one cannot be absolutely sure until the real “situation” is upon us. In the light of this there is only one hope – that is to better educate the next generation to ensure they have better understanding of what we know, and how we come to know. It is for this reason that I have spent recent years exploring how the Internet might best be used to improve education – in particular Science, Engineering and Technology SET education. I started off by creating the Vega Science Trust which is streaming science programmes at www.vega.org.uk. I have more recently set up Global Educational Outreach for SET (GEOSET) which is streaming from the gateway site at www.geoset.info as well as feeder nodes such as www.geoset.fsu.edu and www.geokri.org. With GEOSET we are enabling educators wherever they are to contribute to a free globally accessible cache of teaching material. After all “Although knowledge cannot guarantee good decisions, common sense suggests that wisdom is an unlikely consequence of ignorance”.

Sir Harry Kroto

Sir Harold (Harry) Kroto is currently a Francis Eppes professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, where he is carrying out research in nanoscience and cluster chemistry as well as developing exciting new Internet approaches to STEM educational outreach. In 1996 he was knighted for his contributions to chemistry and later that year was one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and holds an emeritus professorship at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. The research program focuses on the complex range of molecular constituents in carbon vapour; the devel¬opment of novel 2 and 3D metal-cluster/organic frameworks as well as peptides; the stabilization of small fullerenes; and carbon nanotube based devices behaviour.

He has also initiated the Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering, and Technology programme GEOSET - www.geoset.info and www.geoset.fsu.edu. GEOSET seeks to exploit the revolutionary creative dynamics the Internet (which he calls it the GooYouWiki-World) to improve the general level of science teaching worldwide.
In 1985 together with Robert Curl, Richard Smalley and research students Jim Heath, Sean O’Brien and Yuan Liu at Rice Univer¬¨sity (Texas) he carried out laboratory experiments which simulated the chemical reactions in the atmosphere of red giant stars. These experiments uncovered the existence of C60 Buckminsterfullerene, a new form of carbon for which he together with Curl and Smalley received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1995, he launched the Vega Science Trust www.vega.org.uk to create science films of sufficiently high quality for broadcast on UK network television. He has several other awards including the Copley Medal and Faraday Lectureship of the Royal Society and the Longstaff Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He holds some 30 honorary degrees from universities all over the world. From 2004 he has been on the Board of Scientific Governors at Scripps Institute. He was elected a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007.