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President of the Republic at the award ceremony of EUCYS 2017

26.09.2017

Dear young scientists!

The philosophy of science gives us many ways and means to describe what scientific activity is and what it is not. Despite all the theories, we are still not in the position to define science so that we could be certain we have indeed a way to know what is and what is not.

Some thinkers seek to articulate axiomatic assumptions on which science may be based, a form of foundationalism. The following basic assumptions are needed to justify the scientific method:

(1) that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers;
(2) that this objective reality is governed by natural laws;
(3) that these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation.

Proponents argue that these assumptions are reasonable and necessary for practicing science. There are, of course other theories of what science is, but I have always personally found foundationalism as the suitably simple and practically applicable definition. It has some youthful absolutism and there is no relativism in this axiomatic approach to defining science. Therefore it must describe adequately what our young scientists´ community is trying to achieve.

Scientists have many times in history observed certain aspects of life with certain assumptions in mind, and found that their observations do not match what they presumed. Therefore, lack of coherence has led to seeking additional elements, additional parts of the system in order to explain why the calculated result does not fit the result observed.

The most common example is the test of Newton's theory of gravitation. For that test, we need information about the masses and positions of the Sun and all the planets. Famously, the failure to predict the orbit of Uranus in the 19th century led not to the rejection of Newton's law but rather to the rejection of the hypothesis that the solar system comprises only seven planets. The investigations that followed led to the discovery of an eighth planet, Neptune. If a test fails, something is wrong. But there is a problem in figuring out what that something is: a missing planet, badly calibrated test equipment, an unsuspected curvature of space, or something else.

Another famous example concerns the discovery of Mendel's law. Mendelian inheritance is a type of biological inheritance that follows the laws originally proposed by Gregor Mendel in 1865 and 1866 and re-discovered in 1900. The need for rediscovery stems from the fact that Mendel's postulates were tested on another species of plants, which happens to carry far more than one copy of genetic material in their cells – thus obviously not allowing phenotypical analysis to deduct the genotypes. The model of heredity was highly contested by other biologists because it implied that heredity was discontinuous, in opposition to the apparently continuous variation observable for many traits. Many biologists also dismissed the theory because they were not sure it would apply to all species. However, later work by biologists and statisticians such as Ronald Fisher showed that if multiple Mendelian factors were involved in the expression of an individual trait, they could produce the diverse results observed, and thus showed that Mendelian genetics is compatible with natural selection.

These two examples of testing theories with observations, failing and continuing to seek additional information, with very different mid-term outcomes, demonstrates the beauty of science in a very simple way. By trial and error, by theory creation and measuring, the truth prevailed, often only over centuries.

The theories became the truth, because finally they fit in with the rest of what we know, the discrepancies of observation and theory got explained, new certainty was created.

The methods in our hands today, the computational capacity first and foremost, but also all other mass analysis methods like DNA sequencing and others, make your world turn around much faster. Newton lived in 17th-18th century. The discovery of Neptune which proved gravitational theory right happened in 19th. Mendel's laws were rejected strongly, then accepted partially, then generally, over about hundred years, from 1869s to 1940s. Time is getting compressed by our capacity to calculate, lessening our need to observe, meaning that you will all have the happiness of proving your theories right or wrong during your lifetime.

If the Artificial Intelligence develops sufficiently, you may actually even start delegating some thinking, for example the creation of algorithms to seek through a mass of data, to a robot.

But there is one thing which will never change. Your responsibility to your discoveries, but also to humanity. It will only be your decisions that will make science safe and serving the humankind. Humans have been able for tens of years to create murderous bacteria to kill most or all of us. Yet this has never been done. Humans are almost already capable of creating chips which might modify human behavior if inserted into brain. Yet we safeguard against such a development. Humans have almost unleashed once the destructive capacity they have discovered – the nuclear weapons. We are still fighting to control them, as we failed to agree not to develop them.

As you see, there is something more important than discovery – keeping in mind that your discoveries need to be harnessed to the good of humanity. This task ultimately falls to scientists – no one else can understand the risks. You yourself have to understand the risks, to describe them in simple enough and general enough terms to allow other people to set policy so that your creativity could never be misused. We all know Nobel Foundation was partially born from the heartache of Alfred Nobel – he had failed to foresee what calamities his discoveries will lead to. We must know better today.

I wish you all the best in discovering our world for the rest of us, in explaining the beauty of your work to the rest of us, and I hereby trust my own kids' future and my grandchildren's future in the hands of future generation of scientists. Take care of our world, keep our planet habitable and safe. I put all my trust in you!