Rapid technological progress has made “It seems like science fiction!” a cliché.
The number and breadth of scientific advancements made in recent decades boggle the mind: portable phones, computers as thin as hairs, touch screens, the World Wide Web, self-landing rockets, advanced AI, and “Scrub Daddy” sponges.
It’s enough for humanity to puff up its chest, put its hands on its hips, and admit modestly, “Yes, well . . . I have been doing some science recently.”
In December of last year, a lab in California shot 192 high-powered lasers at a tiny diamond and generated more energy than it used through the “ignition” of nuclear fusion.
On a small scale, for a few billionths of a second, the hope of “near-limitless clean energy” using the reaction that takes place in the sun became real.
Nuclear physics shows our fallen nature
While the breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility is a holy grail, it will be decades before nuclear fusion energy becomes commercially available. And, while the experiment represented a milestone, a competing method of nuclear fusion that uses magnets might be the more practical way to progress.
Of course, nuclear fusion is the same power that drives many nuclear weapons. In fact, the National Ignition Facility was built to help the US stockpile nuclear warheads safely. (Personally, I’m for storing nuclear weapons safely, as opposed to the alternative.)
Nevertheless, nuclear physics demonstrates the extremes of humanity better than any other science. It unlocks weapons of mass destruction such that humanity could wipe out billions of our own (we came close in the Cuban Missile Crisis). On the other hand, it also probably holds the key to zero-waste energy, a marvel of human ingenuity.
These two uses of the same science show the span of collective and individual free will. God created humans with a great capacity for good and evil. We can either submit our God-given ingenuity to his wisdom or to our own sinful will.
Scientific and technological breakthroughs of 2022
2022 saw significant advancements in space travel, astronomy, theoretical physics, medical improvements, and AI research.
- NASA’s newly operational James Webb Space Telescope opened a new window into our unspeakably beautiful universe. These high-resolution pictures of our night sky peer nearer to the beginning of time and allow us to experience the constellations in a new, captivating way.
- We also captured the first image of a black hole, those wonderous giants of the universe that heft the very fabric of space-time onto their backs. (It contains the same mass as 6.5 billion stars.)
- As NASA and SpaceX look to put base camps and colonies on Mars and the moon in the next couple of decades, scientists grew the first plants in lunar soil.
- NASA also successfully smashed a rocket into a rock with their program, DART. Seriously, they struck an asteroid to see if they could replicate Deep Impact in case a future comet was found on a trajectory to destroy the earth. And it worked, spectacularly.
- We “holographically” created a wormhole. This one is trickier to understand, but a quantum computer at Google simulated the existence of a wormhole. Trust the experts; it’s a groundbreaking demonstration in theoretical physics that demonstrates the possibility of real wormholes in the physical world, by way of black holes.
- Scientists finally finished encoding the entire human genome and made other medical strides.
- Of course, we’ve written extensively about the advancements in artificial intelligence. The most prominent is ChatGPT, an algorithm that synthesizes an enormous amount of the internet to (typically) produce coherent, clear answers to any written questions. It can even write poetry and essays.
These breakthroughs show leaps in our collective understanding.
Science is a tool, not a savior
Like every other area of life, science can be:
- performed excellently or poorly,
- aimed at good or evil goals,
- or be aimed at good ends but have unforeseen, mixed, or negative effects.
These facts, baked into our human nature, frustrate our technological, utopian visions at every turn. Aside from physical reality, a tangle of moral realities exists in the world. We must attune to both.
Scientism cannot wriggle free from our brokenness. Some people fallaciously believe that technology will solve all negative effects of technology, and, similarly, some fallaciously assume that all new technology is somehow evil or highly suspect.
Why don’t we already use more nuclear energy?
Here’s another demonstration of human fallibility with respect to technology.
The promise of nuclear energy already exists in the form of nuclear fission in nuclear power plants (though they do produce substantial waste). Unfortunately, the general public is still frightened by the prospect of another Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, or even a Three Mile Island. Yet, given the amount of energy we produce with nuclear reactors, it is by far statistically the safest method of producing energy.
Superman said, “Statistically, flying is still the safest way to travel.” Well, he also could have said, after saving Lois from a radioactive meltdown in a nuclear plant, “Statistically, nuclear energy is still the safest way to get electricity.”
Yet, nuclear disasters did happen. Why? Because of human nature.
While the science held up, the people did not. The higher-ups cut corners and ignored safety precautions.
And, of course, scientists sometimes just honestly get it wrong, just as in other professions and studies.
Science won’t lead to utopia
We should value the institution of science. It seeks to systematically delve into the wonderful world of order that God created. We should prize science, but we shouldn’t idolize it.
Technology springs from science and our collective desires and vision (a perfect example of this often dark fact is how the pornography industry fuels the innovation of virtual reality). While pursuing science, Christians should adjust their desires and vision to God’s word, not to the world’s ways.
As believers, we should see the world with savvy eyes, not beholden to the utopian promise of technology nor to the ever-present conspiratorial thinking that seems to plague our culture.
Christ is preeminent to all reality, as Paul beautifully explicates in Colossians: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16).
Christ upholds the order of the universe. What a privilege to study it and use that study for good.