Sharing information - what a concept

Russell Wangersky
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In Antarctica, a group of Russian scientists have finally reached Lake Vostok.

The lake, which is about the size of Lake Ontario, has been frozen under ice for at least 15 million years, and is beneath almost four kilometres (3,769 metres) of ice.

The scientists have been drilling for more than 20 years - essentially, a lifetime's work - to reach the lake and collect a water sample.

The sample, they hope, will contain microbes that may help explain how life evolved on Earth, and whether there might be life in places as diverse as under ice on Mars, or on moons around Jupiter (Europa) and Saturn (Enceladus).

The microbes they think they might find are chemotroph bacteria: instead of depending on light to fuel photosynthesis, they feed on chemical reactions themselves.

Next year, the scientists hope to send a swimming robot down the borehole to collect more water samples, as well as sediment from the lake bottom.

Some people see information - knowledge - as building blocks in a greater global understanding, and they are willing to not only spend a lifetime finding that knowledge, but sharing it openly, as well.

Imagine that: seeing your role in the great arc of science as being the need to reach a lake that was hypothesized to exist by Russian scientist and anarchist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin at the end of the 19th century.

The Russian scientists plan to share any genetic material they find so that other scientists can help to establish that the sample has not been contaminated by microbes that might exist further up the borehole.

There's a heck of a lot of science that's even more particular than that and that's nowhere as media-sexy as Lake Vostok. Still, the work goes on.

This week alone, Italian scientists, for example, have recorded that the most stretchable spider silk comes from the cave spider Meta Menardi.

Other scientists are warning about a new strain of untreatable gonorrhea that has appeared in the United States.

Still others are suggesting that a dip in dopamine levels in people who have quit smoking is responsible for smoking relapses.

There's even work on monitoring an unlikely weather system, System 90L. For a while on Feb. 6, it flirted with becoming a subtropical depression - in other words, posing the potential for a February tropical storm in the U.S. That's only ever been recorded once before, in 1952.

And all of that work is out there in the public for other scientists to ponder, consider and even attempt to disprove.

This isn't to say that there aren't small minds in science or academia; of course there are. There are people of all kinds in most lines of work. Science is certainly fractious and occasionally petty.

The basic rule, though, is that things do better in the sunlight- and more information is always better than less.

Protecting or blocking the release of information is not just self-serving, it's narrow-minded and damaging to the global good.

Contrast that with the messy and confrontational way we've decided to govern ourselves.

Look at the way major political decisions are made: stumbling through different, conflicting ideologies, stifling or hiding information, "managing" the facts that don't support our own particular ends.

It's no wonder that governments repeatedly make bad decisions, especially when they deliberately limit discussion or frame the argument in ways that only support their own political goals.

Winston Churchill famously noted: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried," and that's a good point.

But when you look at the messy lowest-common denominator that our political system has become, you have to ask if it's not time to try to improve it.

We have technologies that can spread information and knowledge faster than ever in human times - a system, by the way, that was early on adopted by scientists looking for even faster ways to share their research and view the research of others.

We can, if we're open to it, learn from others' mistakes and avoid those mistakes ourselves. We have tremendous abilities to gather, sort and use information, and instead, our election campaigns look like the kind of face-slapping bullying we're trying to eradicate from schoolyards.

The fact is that if we want to change that, we all have to make the conscious decision across the political spectrum to be open to other knowledge, other viewpoints and other possibilities.

Maybe political science needs a lot less politics, and a lot more science.

It's time we started co-operatively and calmly looking not only for the facts - all the facts - but also for the best possible ways to reach common goals.

A group of scientists spent 20 years trying to collect one small speck of information from a ice- hidden lake to find out one little bit more about how we came to be.

Do you suppose the author of the latest political attack ad will look back at their career and be able to say "I took part in something global, something that had real value?"

I don't think so.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: U.S. That, The Telegram

Geographic location: Lake Vostok, Antarctica, Lake Ontario Mars Europa United States

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Recent comments

    February 14, 2012 - 10:39

    It is hard to disagree with anything you have said in a perfect world. Let me know when one passes close enough and I will hop on. For some comments on the knowledge part: I agree. But, I have recently run into a group of folks at a major university who are studying the regional accents of the US, mainly Texas. The thesis is that regional accents are becoming flattened out with time. A major portion of the study has to do with the accents of Texans of German decent in Central Texas. Having a lot of experience with those people I know exactly what they are talking about. I went to school with those folks and interacted with their parents and grandparents. They remain my close friends. It was always interesting to me and now the profs . . . and? I doubt the concludions of that study will lead to a cure for cancer or result in international disarament. But, it is costing time and money. Maybe we have a lot of that in excess to burn. As to another point, as a young psychology major in a small university we as students had a lot if interaction with faculty members. In class we heard lectuers about the vagaries of human behavior and greed, narcissim, egotism, antisocial behavior and how laughable all those traits were. I was surprised when some of the very same profs shamelessly exhibited those personality "flaws" during "departmental infighting". Weren't these supposed to be the best and most intelligent who mocked that very same behavior in lectures and whose learning and scholastism held them above all that? "Didn't you just say . . . ?" With 35+ years as a tranactional real estate lawyer and uncountable negotiation sessions behind me I believe I have a pretty good grip of the basics of human nature. Given that, I would not waste a lot of time anticipating the eventual epiphany of humans "coming together", or valuing something of "real value" that might not be in their direct personal interest or profit. But, I continue to be surprised by the actions of "people" so hope if you want to, it could happen, I guess. But hope without me.

  • Cyril Rogers
    February 11, 2012 - 19:16

    Mr. Wangersky, it is painfully obvious that our current system of government is badly bent and out of sync with the aspirations of most of our citizenry. I am frustrated that we can have a federal and provincial of only 25-30% of the actual voting population's support.... who clearly don't respect any position but their own and will try to bully any opposition into silence or submission. We desperately need a change in the way our politicans gain access to the corridors of power, starting with basic electoral reform. It is unconscionable to me that members take their seats with much less than 50 % of support from their riding or district but act as though they have the support 100% of their voters. Even worse, they they often choose to ignore the large numbers, often a majority, who voted against them in this "fist past the post" system we have in place. To begin with, they represent all of the electorate and not just those who voted for them. To paraphrase Jesus, "it is easy to love your supporters" but it takes a genuine politican to serve those who voted against you. More and more, we see petty despots who do just that and it is time for us, as voters, to take back control. We need reform in the worst possible way but reform that will ensure some tyrant does not hijack the process, such as happened with the federal Conservatives and PM Harper.

    • Too many parties
      February 12, 2012 - 13:08

      The downside of your suggestion is that we would end up with parties at the extreme. In NL and Canada it would be either PC/Conservative or NDP. Central parties like the Liberals would be eliminated but it looks like that's happening anyway..