The 2,209th Meeting of the Society

October 6, 2006 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

What is Science and Why Do We Really Care?

G. Peter Nanos

Associate Director for Research and Development
Defense Threat Reduction Agency

About the Lecture

This lecture will look at the basic philosophy of science. It will address the importance of Science to American Society. Where do we find innovative science in America? How does that science find its way into all we do? What does it mean to look at the world scientifically? This lecture will address these very basic questions.

About the Speaker

PETE NANOS is the Associate Director for Research and Development in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Previously, he was Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. When he retired from the Navy as Vice Admiral, he headed the Naval Sea Systems Command. In his Navy career, he had served on destroyers and carriers. He managed the high energy laser program. He served as Deputy Director for Engineering in the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. He directed strategic programs for the Trident II submarine inertial navigation systems. He was in charge of submarine-based missile systems for the US and the UK. He received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with a gold star, the Meritorious Service Medal with four gold stars, and the Navy Achievement Medal. He is a member of the Cosmos Club. He holds an engineering degree from the Naval Academy, where he was a Trident Scholar. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton.


President William Saalbach called the 2,209th meeting to order at 8:17 pm in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club.

The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,208th meeting and they were approved.

Mr. Saalbach introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. G. Peter Nanos of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Mr. Nanos spoke on What is Science and Why Do We Really Care?

Mr. Nanos welcomed the opportunity to speak on a very important subject. He said he was glad to be talking to the Philosophical Society, which, after the recent incidents at Columbia may represent one of the last bastions of civil discourse in the country.

Mr. Nanos wanted to start from the basics, because if there are problems with science in this country, they are likely to stem from a misunderstanding of what science is. Science is not technology. It is a philosophy of inquiry. It is based upon examination, theoretical postulate, and empirical verification. Science as a body does not exist without experimentation. Theory that does not admit of test is not scientific theory. String theory has this problem. String theorists have a lot of fun with their discussions, but have yet to push the envelope of knowledge forward. String theory’s propositions are not testable. Similarly, intelligent design, because it can’t be verified, it is not a scientific theory.

He read recently about an agency “providing funding” for science in the country. He took issue with that construction. They are not just throwing money at science, they provide funding to test propositions that push forward the body of knowledge of mankind.

Young people have to understand science, know the methods, to know what it is about. Mr. Nanos, growing up in the 20th century, believed that U.S. was the center of science and always would be. Before the war, however, most discoveries were being made overseas. After the war, with Germany and Japan decimated, the center moved here.

Our university system also became pre-eminent after the war. Almost all technological innovation in the country comes from universities. The Hewlett-Packard garage was at Stanford. Bill Gates was a college dropout.

Now, however, we are seeing many trained young scientists go overseas to work. Foreign students were coming to major in science and staying. Now they are coming, studying, then going home. China is establishing world-class universities with graduates from America.

If we want to stay competitive, we have to think about this as a public issue. We should demand that the scientific part of education of young people be given just as much credence as the literary part.

If someone says that one who has not read Shakespeare is not educated, people believe it. People think, however, that it is acceptable if someone does not understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Changing this starts with the fundamentals. Secondly, we have to make scientific careers attractive. We have to give credence and rewards to those giving their lives to science.

Science will go on in the world, he said, but will the U.S. be able to partake of it?

Mr. Nanos recalled a television show called “Our Friend the Atom” and similar shows. “The Atom” was on in prime time on a major network. He is somewhat at a loss as to how to capture the imagination of and create excitement among young people today.

He is doing his part. He teaches modern physics at a community college. He tries to demystify science, and, more importantly, demystify scientists.

For example he described what Max Planck did as “fiddled around with the equation until it fit the data.” Then the equation was picked up by Einstein and used to explain the photoelectric effect. Later it became the foundation for quantum mechanics. These were, he said, just a group of real people who were able to deal with scientific inquiry in a way that made sense.

He offered to answer questions.

One questioner commented on the disappointment when science was funded at universities by the government. This produced a surplus of scientists. There were few opportunities for graduates in industry, because industry works short-term and science is long-term. Mr. Nanos added that, as a result of funding science at universities, industry turned to universities for that resource. Now, however, universities are waking up to the value of intellectual property and are unwilling to relinquish the rights. As a result, industries are taking the research overseas.

Another questioner pointed out, using her own experience as an example, how personal choices and influences of particular times affect choices of what they study. Mr. Nanos observed that people should be encouraged to follow their talents and to stretch themselves as much as they can.

Another questioner asked his opinion on a science court or similar institution to resolve issues and thereby force resolution of matters and permit more progress. Mr. Nanos did not take answer directly, but he did compare Oppenheimer and Heisenberg. We were lucky to have Oppenheimer, he said, and related how the more authoritarian Heisenberg took as truth a major error about the critical mass, an error from which they never recovered.

Responding to another question, Mr. Nanos observed that none of the universities are independent and therefore cannot operate as businesses. He also clarified that he does not favor reducing support for the humanities.

Mr. Saalbach thanked our speaker and presented a plaque commemorating the event. He announced the next meeting. He made a pitch for support of the Society, especially through sponsored lectures. He made the parking announcement and invited everyone to stay for the social hour. Finally, at 9:20 pm, he adjourned the 2,209th meeting.

Attendance: 52
Temperature: 16° C
Weather: Still cloudy, but clearing after a day of rain from a nor’easter
Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary