Science for science’s sake might change the world: As it has before.

An addition to our #UnfoldTheUniverse art social media campaign by Camilo Nascimento. Inspired by #Spacetober 2022, art prompt 3 “JWST. February 13, 2023. (Photo: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Ora Buch)

The invention of the printing press is considered one of the most significant technological advancements in human history.

In one fell swoop, it revolutionized the way information was disseminated, leading to a dramatic increase in the spread of knowledge and, eventually, the democratization of education.

The printing press was first perfected by Johannes Gutenberg — a German goldsmith and entrepreneur — around the mid-15th century. Gutenberg’s invention built upon existing technologies and concepts, such as movable type and the use of presses, but he made several crucial innovations that set his printing press apart.

Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world, but it didn’t do so right away.

Determining the precise average literacy rate in the mid-15th century is challenging due to limited historical data and variations across different regions. However, it is estimated that in Europe, literacy rates ranged from around 5% to 30% among the general population during the time Gutenberg was tinkering with his press.

Today, the average global literacy rate for individuals aged 15 years and older is estimated to be around 86.3%. For most European countries, it is closer to 96%.

The invention of the internal combustion engine was another landmark human achievement.

The internal combustion engine is a type of heat engine that converts the chemical energy stored in fuel into mechanical work by igniting and burning a mixture of fuel and air within a combustion chamber.

While various precursors and experiments paved the way for the development of the internal combustion engine, its invention is often attributed to Nikolaus Otto, a German engineer. In 1867, Otto introduced the first commercially successful four-stroke internal combustion engine, known as the “Otto engine.” His design became the foundation for the modern internal combustion engines used in automobiles, motorcycles, and many other applications

The internal combustion engine revolutionized transportation and had a profound impact on industrialization and modern society.

The engine, like the printing press before it, fundamentally changed the world — but it didn’t do so overnight. Most people in the mid-15th century had no idea they were witnessing an era of profound and fundamental change, but they were.

Likewise, most people in 1867 had probably never even heard of Nikolaus Ott o— even less so his precursor to four-cylinder internal combustion engine design, Etienne Lenior. The world over, most people had no idea just how much the world was about to change.

The invention of the printing press and the invention of the internal combustion engine are two of the greatest leaps forward in human scientific endeavor since we pioneered writing. Though historians might disagree about who should get the credit, both fundamentally changed life on planet Earth for human beings.

Yet, our ancestors had no more idea of what was coming than most of us did in 1993.

The Pentium processor, developed by Intel Corporation, was another significant milestone in scientific history. Its development can be directly traced back to the early 1990s.

In the late 1980s, Intel released the 486 processor, which was a notable improvement over its predecessor, the 386 processor. However, as technology advanced and demands for faster and more capable processors grew, Intel recognized the need for further innovation. The Pentium project emerged as a response to this demand, aiming to deliver higher performance and enhanced features.

Intel’s Pentium processor was officially introduced on March 22, 1993, and only a scant handful of humans noticed.

Most people didn’t even own a personal computer in 1993 — nor did they want one. Today, most people have a personal computer in their pocket or purse at all times — when it’s not in their hand.

Science for science’s sake may seem like a waste to the less-visionary members of society. But science, as we can observe from history — even recent history — can, and often does, change the world. And we never know where lightning will strike. The printing press, yes; the Segway, no.

The James Webb Space Telescope — launched on December 25, 2022 — may seem to some an expensive, useless contraption bound to end up as billion-dollar space junk. Some people may see the work of NASA as superfluous, even wasteful.

Is it?

Improving our understanding of the universe, and the many inventions it has taken mankind to reach this vaunted point might bring advancements we even can’t imagine yet.

Most people don’t dream of commercial space travel; most have no ambitions to set up housekeeping on some far-flung unknown planet many thousand light years from Earth.

But what about unlocking the secrets of hidden water in our own backyard?

“WASP-18 b, seen in an artist concept, is a gas giant exoplanet 10 times more massive than Jupiter that orbits its star in just 23 hours. Researchers used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to study the planet as it moved behind its star. Temperatures there reach 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,700 C).” Artist Illustration Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (K. Miller/IPAC)

“Webb analyzed the atmosphere of an ultrahot gas giant and mapped its temperatures,” announced NASA this week. “Despite scorching heat (nearly 5000 F or 2700 C), WASP-18 b has small amounts of atmospheric water — precisely measured due to Webb’s sensitivity.”

“WASP-18b zips around its star so fast that its year is only 23 hours long,” NASA explained. “It is also tidally locked, meaning one side of it always faces its star.”

“This graphic presentation of spectral data highlights a key similarity and difference between observations of Comet 238P/Read by the NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph) instrument on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in 2022 and observations of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 by NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2010. Both show a distinct peak in the region of the spectrum associated with water. Finding this in Comet Read was a significant accomplishment for Webb, as it is in a different class of comets than Jupiter-family comets like Hartley 2, and this marks the first time that a gas has been confirmed in such a main belt comet. However, Comet Read did not show the characteristic, expected bump indicating the presence of carbon dioxide.” (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and J. Olmsted (STScI))

“Webb confirmed the first detection of water vapor around a rare type of comet in the main asteroid belt,” reported NASA excitedly. “This suggests that water from the early solar system can be preserved in that region as ice — a breakthrough for studying the origins of water on Earth.”

“We don’t quite know how water got to Earth,” admits NASA. “According to the science team, understanding the history of water distribution in our solar system will in turn help us understand other planetary systems — and if they could be on their way to hosting an Earth-like planet.”

Scientists estimate the human population will have grown to 8.5 billion by 2030. It could grow exponentially larger in the decades to follow. The discoveries made by Webb today might ensure that generations to come have access to clean drinking water.

And that is a practical application upon which we can all wholeheartedly agree.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)