In Defence of Science

In September, Tanzania joined 34 other African countries to celebrate Africa Science Week, a yearly event organised by the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) initiative using its science ambassadors. Dr. Noorali Jiwaji, an astronomer and senior lecturer at The Open University of Tanzania, gave a keynote address at a science cafe for University students, part of the NEF Science Week.  He spoke passionately on “defence of science “,  drawing a line on how different and interconnected science and technology are, and how to engage the younger generation with not only the products of science (tools and gadgets), but also basic, fundamental science where all the magic happens. He graciously agreed to share the address below. Enjoy!

Keynote address at the Africa Science Week – Science Cafe

Nkrumah Hall, University of Dar es Salaam, 28 September, 2018


 We are marking the Africa Science Week in the name of the greatest scientist whose thinking continues to drive scientists to understand the fundamental nature of our Universe. This week is being marked to celebrate science in Africa, yet I am focusing on the defense of Science. Does this mean we are under some sort of attack? Perhaps not in the conflict sense but we are indeedreaching a danger point in ignoring the importance of science.

Most people will say “But that is not true, we are bombarded by the word science continually”. True, but it is the word Technology that is always used in conjunction with Science. There is no doubt that there is a definite interest in understanding Science as seen in probing questions that children ask about “WHY” of the things that go on around them. Children are born naturally inquisitive. My own experience when conducting science talks and stargazing sessions with children is the enthusiasm with which they listen and absorb knowledge and come up with innumerable questions some of which show a deep thinking about the world around them. It is easier to answer questions of “WHAT” and “HOW” but it is only when you ask why, that the Science kicks in.

When we look at an electric motor do we get a picture of the current in the wire surrounded by cylindrical magnetic fields? When we see a tree do we know that it is nothing but two gases that combined to make all that wood? When we see the graph of global changes of temperatures for the past 10,000 years, are we concerned that the vertical line at the end of the graph shows an abnormal catastrophic recent increase in temperature? Can we make people confident enough to ignore WhatsApp messages that warn of cosmic rays in the middle of the night exploding phones?

Dr. Noorali Jiwaji at the Africa Science Week, September 2018, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania


That is the type of critical and analytical thinking about nature that we need to develop in our young generation and teach them to continually ask the question “WHY?” and enable them to argue out the answers themselves.



To get the mind to the WHAT and HOW questions so that they become curious about the WHY, it is necessary to expose children and youth to as much HANDS-ON experiences as possible about the world around them. And based on these experiences they can the Science that is necessary to understand the WHY. Without hands on learning we end up with rote learning, hoping that one day everything will make sense, if they can still remember it at all, and by which time students have given up on ever being good at Science. Science allows us to appreciate and value our world and makes life enjoyable and excited by being able to think about how to improve it.

Our challenge is to make science interesting in class. However, when answering the why questions we fail to go deep enough to allow youngsters to understand nature from its basics. We ask them to be happy with general answers that many times can be wrong or misleading, making it even more difficult to understand higher Science concepts and characteristics of nature.

My focus has been on Astronomy because it is immediately attractive to people and raises their thirst to know about the mysteries of our Universe. It is a magnet for young minds that are set ablaze trying to make sense of the unimaginable. Historical development of Astronomy allows young minds to trace the natural development of knowledge using the methods of science – asking simple questions, getting eye-opening answers, and which in turn invite further inquiry.

Astronomy combines all Sciences natural and social. Can you imagine an Astrophysics conference themed on Astrochemistry and Astrobiology for the origin of life? Future colonization of Space will also test our Social and Legal systems. Let us turn our minds to doing Science all the time. Let us get away from the remembering and very soon forgetting knowledge, and instead turn towards understanding and using it.

Technology is NOT Science. Technology NEEDS Science.

Science also needs to be defended from Technology since the two words are taken to mean the same thing. Technology is NOT Science. Technology NEEDS Science. And in this modern world progress in Science is driven by advances in technology. The overwhelming focus that we are putting on only using technologies from outside which they developed only because of their deep mastery of fundamental science to solve THEIR problems, NOT OURS. The tropics are a completely different story from the cold climate for which the technologies were designed. However, we do make good use of available technologies; and by looking at all the innovations that we see our youngsters create, we squeeze out as much benefit from them as possible. But we are unable to create new technologies that address our own problems and challenges.

Technology can bring visible benefits while Science needs time to mature. Technology brings in money while Science cannot be done without public funding, commitment and support. Technology is essential for development, but let us not forget that it is only through mastery of Science that we can have true freedom.

I urge youths to share their experiences and questions about the natural world and be ready to be challenged by participating in quizzes and competitions that sharpen their understanding. Let us not look for praise but seek criticism so that we can understand our shortcomings and open our minds to learn new things. I urge science and technology professionals to share their work with the public by writing popular articles in print and social media and avail to themselves to assist the young generation to consolidate and apply their knowledge for the development of our nation. Let us be ready to express ourselves in our professional language, but also use the language of the public, including Kiswahili. Let us think big and not be misled by detractors, so that we can excel in both Technology as well as Science.

To reach Dr. N. Jiwaji: Twitter: @ntjiwaji 


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