Science: The Hidden Mainspring
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 1 Mar 1979, p. 247-258
Wilson, Dr. J. Tuzo, Speaker
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The development of the steam engine as the cause of subsequent growth in the economy. Reasons for the causes of our economic difficulties poorly understood and efforts to correct them to little avail. Three related matters are discussed: why, if science and engineering are so vital to our prosperity and health, is their influence so denigrated; the nature of the change needed to correct economic thinking; what should we do about the increasing scarcity and expense of energy? The concept of no-growth, and conservation.
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1 Mar 1979
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MARCH 1, 1979
Science: The Hidden Mainspring
CHAIRMAN The President, Reginald W. Lewis


Members and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: It is frequently the case that while a name may be often before us and may be so familiar to our ears, a name that conjures up the image of an important man in our midst, we may at the same time be hard-pressed to define just what it is that he does for a living. I mean no disrespect when I suggest that that circumstance could apply in the case of our guest speaker today, Dr. John Tuzo Wilson, a man of many parts.

The reason why we may find it difficult to pin any particular label to the man is because there are so many labels that we could use. He is at the moment the Director General of the Ontario Science Centre--that marvelous creation that has added so much to the layman's understanding of the nature of the world around him. Prior to that, he was for seven years principal of Erindale College of the University of Toronto.

He is one of the world's leading geophysicists. He is a world traveller, having circumnavigated this globe about eight times, popping up in places like China, the North Pole, or Antarctica. He is a prolific writer and the recipient of many, many honours and prizes. He has headed up an Ontario government enquiry into aluminum wiring. And for recreation, he sails a thirty-ton Hong Kong junk in his spare time. He was once dubbed "the benign cyclone of science."

But for all this, he considers that it is important for the public to understand about science so that, in his words, "people can make decisions about things important for their benefit, such as energy and pollution." His most recent achievement in the field of geophysics was crowned with what is termed the Nobel Prize of the earth scientists, the Vetlesen Gold Medal and $50,000 prize, the number one award for unique achievement in the earth sciences. Dr. Wilson has convinced the world's earth scientists of the continental drift theory which sees the earth as a dynamic mobile body with, as he puts it, "The continents floating about the globe like froth in a pot,"--a theory apparently called "plate tectonics."

And now having taken you this far, I am completely beyond my depth and will look to Dr. Wilson to extricate us. Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to introduce to you now a man who today has his hat trick by appearing at this forum for a third time, a man who has brought great honour to himself and great honour to Canada, the Director General of the Ontario Science Centre, Dr. John Tuzo Wilson, Companion of the Order of Canada and Officer of the Order of the British Empire, who will speak to us on the subject "Science: The Hidden Mainspring."


Ladies and gentlemen: On the twenty-ninth of September last, I happened to read an article on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. The story maintained that it had been the invention, two centuries ago, of what the distinguished author called "industrial capitalism" that had been the cause of the subsequent growth in the economy. I certainly agree that growth has been splendid, that the capitalist system has encouraged it and that Adam Smith was a great thinker, but nevertheless I suggest that the rest of the argument is wrong. It was the development of the steam engine rather than any change in financing which made growth possible.

The steam engine provided the first source of cheap and abundant synthetic power with which to produce goods in abundance and transport them quickly. Before that, men had only wind, water and muscles to provide power and everything was handmade. Cheap energy has been the source of our prosperity and it is now vanishing. It is not capitalists that are in short supply. It is resources. Adam Smith was the author, but, more than anyone else, James Watt was the creator of the Wealth of Nations.

Articles such as that in the Wall Street Journal do much to satisfy the egos of the leaders of the financial world, but little to illuminate the truth. The tragic fact is that because synthetic energy created wealth which prospered under the capitalist system and because the leaders in government and business are more powerful, richer and have more prestige than those who made the creation of wealth possible, many of these leaders have come to believe that laws, edicts, taxes and other financial manipulations are more important than production. This ability of economists to put the cart before the horse and then forget the horse is one of the tragedies of our times. It is the reason why the causes of our economic difficulties are so poorly understood and why the efforts to correct them are of so little avail.

There are three related matters I wish to discuss today. The first is why is it, if science and engineering are so vital to our prosperity and health, that their influence is denigrated? The second is to point out the nature of the change needed to correct economic thinking. The third is, now that energy is becoming scarce and expensive, what should we do about it?

It is possible to suggest several reasons why science and engineering are inconspicuous and their key role is forgotten. One is that, once an invention or discovery has been made, managers, bankers and lawyers move in to exploit it and build an industry. Generally they are not the original inventors, but they make more money, seem to exercise more power and appear to be more glamorous and important than the true creators of wealth. I say this with no chagrin, because even if often obscure, the life of scientists is fascinating and rewarding, but to point out how these leaders have come to believe, with the Wall Street Journal, that laws and financial manipulations can create wealth.

Another reason why science is forgotten is that the arts of all kinds, to say nothing of sports, receive immensely more publicity than does science. Again I mean nothing derogatory, for like everyone else, I enjoy the important part the arts play in our lives and I am indeed introducing more of them at the Ontario Science Centre. It is just in the nature of the arts that they have to attract attention. Few actors, singers or dancers like to perform in solitude and none of them can earn a living unless he or she can attract an audience. All painters and sculptors need to sell their creations. It is essential for all artists and for all of their colleagues who operate theatres and galleries to advertise and maintain a loud and continuous claque for the arts.

Scientists operate in a totally different way. They have not needed to advertise to get support. They abhor the thought of crowds pushing into their laboratories. Many of them like to make what they do appear difficult and then act as high priests of a mystery. Since scientists don't need publicity and hence don't pay for any advertising, the newspapers and the media tend to neglect them and few scientists have developed any skill in public relations.

Still another reason why science is not well perceived is that from earliest times men have collected those things which are rare and beautiful and have paid to watch the skilful perform. It was royalty and the wealthy who could first afford those things and, as a result, there has always been a social cachet attached to the arts which was never well developed by the sciences. Affairs at the Royal Society are hardly affairs for society.

Many people are therefore led to believe that science is dull, difficult and unpopular. This is a very superficial view which the facts do not substantiate. Many scientists may be dull, difficult and unpopular, but not a science. There are some indications that the general public appreciates this.

Among the most enduring of television and radio series and among those with the largest audiences are science shows such as "The Nature of Things." Newspapers are publishing more about science. The provincial government sensed this popularity when it built the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. It immediately attracted 1.3 million visitors a year which makes it the museum with the largest attendance in Canada. This popularity was one of the many reasons I was delighted to be asked to join the staff. Its travelling shows reach another 400,000 people a year, or one and three quarters of a million altogether.

What probably will surprise you is that in those cities where there is both a good art gallery and a modern science museum, cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, London, England, Chicago and Washington, the science museum in each attracts several times, about four times, as many people as does the art gallery. Last summer, a group from the University of Waterloo carried out a survey which indicated that during July and August the Science Centre attracts twelve times as many tourists as the Art Gallery of Ontario. These crowds show that people are indeed fascinated by such matters as how their bodies and minds function, how their organs of sense and perception inform and sometimes deceive them, what skills they possess of strength and balance, how fast are their reaction times. The general public would evidently just as soon test themselves in these matters as watch someone else perform, which is why the Science Centre attracts as many visitors as the Stratford Festival, the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company combined.

People also want to know about the wonders of the universe, about living creatures, atomic energy, computers, solar heat, and how to insulate their houses. Science has developed so rapidly that such centres are needed to keep adults up-to-date and to show students many things that schools cannot afford. The Science Centre is primarily an educational institution, but such an entertaining one that people pay to come and learn.

Ten years ago when the Ontario government founded the Ontario Science Centre it was one of only a few such institutions anywhere. It was an instant success. Since then, science centres have proliferated everywhere, until there are now over a hundred, and new small ones are being opened in the United States at the rate of about one a month.

It seems clear that there is a growing interest in science among the public. I suspect that this is because people realize, if only dimly, that technology has been the cause of our affluence, and that, if affluence is now declining, science perhaps deserves attention.

At the Centre we want to satisfy that demand. Our travelling exhibits have been to all parts of the province and this summer, with federal funds, are going across the country. The Centre is constantly bringing its exhibits up to date, introducing fresh ones and trying experiments such as staging theatrical and puppet shows on energy to appeal to people with little previous experience of science.

I heard yesterday that Mr. Paul Deacon advocated sending Canadian artistic endeavours on tour. I cordially agree and in that connection I would mention that last week I spoke to ten million Japanese through an interpreter on television. A crew had flown to Toronto to spend two weeks filming the Centre for a one-hour special on the Japanese network. Canadian arts are good, but the Ontario government founded a centre here that is unique.

Another matter upon which I wished to touch is the matter of future growth. As a start I want to stress that I believe that the economic growth of the past two hundred years has been splendid. Since I can just remember the summer of 1913, I have watched the changes which have occurred in one third of these two centuries of tremendous growth and I know what great advances there have been in health, in transportation, in food, in affluence and in all material things during that time, although not much change perhaps in overall happiness and satisfaction with life. However I am not one who believes we should or can return to the past. It is neither possible nor sensible to imagine all the two million people in Toronto wanting or being able to return to a simple rural existence.

The most striking feature of all discussions about the economy and energy supplies is the contradictions and confusion in views. In the past month I have seen the president of a major Canadian company absolutely furious at the suggestion that the economy would not continue to grow, I have read a blistering attack by the Electric and Electronic Manufacturing Association of Canada upon Arthur Porter for daring to suggest that growth is slowing down; they state that the rate of growth for decades has been 7.9 per cent and this must automatically continue. This theme of getting back to overall growth at a rate of five per cent is a favourite theme of Mr. Chretien, but we all know that recently it has not been achieved. On the other hand in the past month I have heard the president of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and two spokesmen for major oil companies all deny that this rate can continue. Twenty-five years ago, Dr. King Hubbert, then Director of Research for Shell Oil Company, drew a series of graphs predicting the rate of discovery and the rate of consumption of petroleum for a century ahead. He predicted that both would peak at about this time and then decline back to nothing. The fact that the United States is now importing about forty-six per cent of its oil supplies shows how serious the situation is.

Such striking disagreements about growth and the economy are extraordinary when one considers how greatly our future depends upon the outcome and they indicate that the state of economic science is indeed parlous.

Such passionate disagreements about fundamentals strike a response in my own experience. Like every other North American geologist, I was brought up to believe that the continents are fixed. It is true that geology was then in a poor state. In practice it consisted solely of collecting samples and observations. Unlike physics or chemistry or engineering, it had no guiding principles or laws. Attempts to frame laws had been so disastrous that they were shunned. The science of the earth could explain nothing important about the earth. It was in a confused state with many arguments and no answers. In this respect it resembled economic theory today. Other scientists looked down on it and Lord Rutherford had likened geology to postage stamp collecting.

It is true that in the year I was born, Taylor and Wegner had proposed the theory that the continents are moving slowly about. Few read or studied their arguments and no one refuted them, but they were laughed at. During the next fifty years evidence accumulated to support their views and by that time a few of us changed sides. It was a traumatic experience to have to admit that we had been quite wrong. The effect was like a religious conversion in middle age. Conversion was not helped by the attitude of the remaining opposition. Feelings were high. I recall being booed by an audience of oil geologists in Dallas.

Gradually it became evident that the new theory could explain earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, and much about the location of oil and ore deposits which had all been hidden before. All the experts had condemned the new theory and all the experts had been wrong. Slowly the Geological Surveys, oil companies, mining companies and universities admitted their error and by adopting the new basic philosophy cleared up the arguments and turned geology into a useful science.

This need to accept a fresh philosophy from time to time is now well understood in science. No nuclear or electronics studies were possible until Becquerel had discovered at the end of the last century that the atom could be split. There could be no understanding of heredity, genetics or the role of DNA until Darwin had pointed out the reality of evolution. There could be no understanding of the solar system or of the laws of mechanics, of gravity, of science itself, until Copernicus had proposed that the earth was not stuck on a pillar with all the heavenly bodies revolving around it attached to crystal spheres.

These examples show that the history of each branch of science has been similar. Each science in turn has to come to a halt, bogged down in argument and incapable of good predictions. Evidence and logic eventually forced the acceptance of a new philosophy. Conversion was slow, difficult and strongly opposed because it was always outsiders who first proposed the change and only later did the experts and pundits shamefacedly have to admit that they had all been quite wrong. The one fortunate feature was that in each case, when they did so, progress was possible again and the science, be it geology, physics, biology or astronomy, improved vastly and became useful.

It seems to me that the subject of economics has reached this state and that the reason is that politicians, bankers and businessmen refuse to accept the nature of growth. It is not, however, really very difficult to understand as a simple example will show.

Suppose that a human infant, born eighteen or twenty inches long, grows steadily at a rate of five per cent a year. Five per cent of twenty inches is about one inch; the child grows by that much in its first year. The parents would be greatly distressed. Five per cent is not nearly fast enough. However the child continues to grow and in about fifteen years doubles in height to around three feet. It is still a dwarf, but still growing at a rate of five per cent which by now is at a rate of about two inches a year. Hence in another fifteen years, when thirty years old, he or she would have doubled again to reach six feet. Everyone would be content and hold that five per cent growth, now proceeding at a rate of four inches a year is the ideal rate.

Observe, however, that growth continuing at five per cent would produce repeated doublings every fifteen years, so that the hypothetical person would reach twelve, twenty-four, and forty-eight feet at forty-five, sixty and seventy-five years respectively. It is thus apparent that during a single lifetime five per cent growth changes from being too small to being just right to becoming grotesque and impossible.

Fortunately for all of us, physical growth stopped at about the age of twenty years. We never regret this halt or imagine that life ended when we grew up. On the contrary it was a good thing and we maintain that other forms of growth have continued to enrich our lives.

Economic growth follows exactly the same law as human growth. The mathematics are irrefutable and it is truly astonishing that people as good at figures as businessmen and bankers are so reluctant to accept the limitations. They cry that some new form of energy will save us and provide unlimited growth in future, forgetting that the other three great elements of the Greeks, arable earth, clear air and fresh water are also all limited.

Four ideas have to be accepted. First, the magnificent growth of the past two centuries was not normal. Nor was it the result of any special skill in financing. It was due to the discovery of cheap sources of synthetic power which made possible developments in engineering, medicine and science. Secondly, growth is now stopping. Thirdly, a return to a static state or renewal is a return to normality. All nature and nearly all civilizations have existed without overall growth.

Imagine returning to view a primitive forest or a jungle, century after century. One would discern no change. All the trees and plants and animals would live their lives, die and be replaced, but the total effect would be constant. That has also been the common lot of mankind, like father, like son. I know it is shocking to many of you to suggest that that is what must happen to us and that quickly.

Some of you will not be able to believe what I say. Others will say what does this theorist, who knows nothing of business or finance, mean by telling us that our economic thinking is basically wrong? Politicians will think how could we possibly get elected with so gloomy a platform? I'm sorry. The fact that I have been booed before for an idea that later became acceptable does not mean that I am right this time, but I have pointed out a pattern which has been followed.

I would not be so foolish as to come here and spread gloom if I did not think we could do something. I am not pessimistic, for my fourth suggestion is that I believe that much can be done, but only if we accept the inevitable. Through the advances of the past two hundred years we have reached a high level of health and prosperity. Now that growth is no longer feasible it should be our object to maintain this level as a plateau. The danger is that in struggling against the impossible we will exhaust our resources and stagnate as in India, or fall backward into the chaos which the pressure of population is causing in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

In Canada the severity of our cold climate may be our greatest strength, for it slows and could halt population increase. Then if we preserve our arable land so that we can feed ourselves when transport becomes expensive, replant our forests instead of mining them, restrict immigration, prepare transportation against the time ten years hence when gasoline will be expensive, scarce and rationed, we could achieve a reasonable future.

We are all, if we think about it, glad that since twenty we have been no-growth humans. We are all delighted that we did not grow to fifty feet tall. We have found a multitude of useful things to do other than physical growth. Our continued existence, in spite of the fact that we are all no-growth humans, should remind us that no-growth is not the same as stagnation. One part can replace another, one section can grow at the expense of another. After all, a poker game is an excellent example in miniature of a no-growth society. The exchange of cards, chips and money can be exciting, although the total of cards, chips and money does not grow. The science that has given us riches offers, if ingeniously used, the chance to survive in reasonable prosperity. The danger is that, although we can accept the advantage of being no-growth humans, we will fail to understand the necessity for a no-growth society, waste our resources and lose our chance to stabilize, and suffer a negative growth or decline which would be tragic indeed.

The shortage of energy and resources demands conservation. The mathematics of growth preclude overall expansions, but activity, so far from stopping, will become greater. We have drifted into indolence. What we need is vigour, ingenuity, a realization of the competitive nature of life and a clearer realization that the basis of our culture is science and technology. Throughout history men have excelled in the arts and have manipulated laws and finances, but the west only became wealthy when its inventors developed cheap and abundant power and machinery.

Henceforth, not only will you all be no-growth humans and glad of it, but you will also, whether you like it or not, be living in a no-growth society. As in a poker game some will win and some lose. In the past all countries have tried to fiddle the rules to win by new laws of financing, and some countries like Canada have been able to draw fresh cards in the form of natural resources, but in future we should realize that only good cards and good playing will avail and that one should not be too confident that one will automatically win without really trying.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Douglas L. Derry, C.A., a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Science: The Hidden Mainspring

The development of the steam engine as the cause of subsequent growth in the economy. Reasons for the causes of our economic difficulties poorly understood and efforts to correct them to little avail. Three related matters are discussed: why, if science and engineering are so vital to our prosperity and health, is their influence so denigrated; the nature of the change needed to correct economic thinking; what should we do about the increasing scarcity and expense of energy? The concept of no-growth, and conservation.