“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke.
“You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?” - Mark Twain.
By now careful readers of this column would have noticed that we are scientific and technological buffs.
Actually, very few things fascinate me more than to read about scientific exploits.
Very few things captivate me than to read or watch how ordinary human beings, sit down and use their brains and intellects to achieve what is truly magical and, per definition, should be unachievable.
I have read my fair share of books, and I have a library a medium-sized college will be proud of, but few books have moved me more than Norman Mailer’s “Of a Fire on the Moon,” an account of the man’s landing on the moon.
The more I read and re-read that book, the more I continue to be awed by that momentous achievement.
And yesterday, I watched the documentary, ‘In the Shadow of the Moon,’ twice.
It’s a video documentary on the Apollo programmes.
My head still reel just thinking about the mathematics, the science and the engineering that went into that prodigious endeavour.
I love to watch the stars, and I have two telescopes to aid my enterprise. I also have a couple of planetarium software on my laptop to aid my astronomical curiosity. Gazing at the celestial bodies is truly awesome as well as humbling.
I can only imagine (with envy, I admit) what the astronauts must have felt as they gaze around in their space crafts!
What I tell people is that they should take a peep at the planetary motion and their views and understanding of the world will be radically altered.
Very few who have seriously study the heavens will not be humbled not only by its vastness, its immense complexities but also by its sheer beauty.
The universe is truly immense and mind-boggling in its majesty.
What constantly awe me is the fact that mere mortals, equipped with the same brain like you and I, sat down to plan how to get a human being to land on the face of our satellite, the moon, and get him back safely back to earth.
And they did it!
And they did it using equipments that were truly primitive by today’s standards.
We talk here about leaving our earth and heeding towards uncharted territory. We are talking here about men and women planning about how to successfully embark on a journey of a distance of 384,400 kilometers.
And if the moon landing project was awesome, the recent landing of a robotic rover on Mars lacks the adequate superlative to describe it.
This is how a noted science writer, Ian O'Neill, put it: “The landing of Curiosity alone will be an engineering triumph; anything the rover does after will be a scientific bonus.
A nuclear-powered, one-ton robotic rover armed with a rock-burning laser and a set of heavy-duty drills is currently preparing to land on Mars. Its mission is to carry out a vast array of experiments to help mankind understand the Red Planet's suitability for life and, ultimately, to help answer the age-old philosophical question: Is life on Earth special?
After nearly nine months of gliding through interplanetary space, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, known as "Curiosity", will feel Martian dirt crunching under its six wheels at 1:31am EDT (5:31am GMT) on Monday after the (hopefully) successful culmination of the "seven-minutes of terror" - a moniker for the mission's entry, descent and landing (EDL).
To any hypothetical Martians living on the planet's surface, this strange meteor would streak high across the sky toward Gale Crater, a 154-kilometre wide impact crater in the Martian landscape with a conspicuous 5.5-kilometre high mountain in its centre. But the Martians would be in for a shock as they watch a carefully choreographed series of steps unfold - parachute opening, pyrotechnic bolts firing and heatshield being jettisoned away - heralding the start of arguably the most dramatic part of Curiosity's mission.
So as we watch the clock count down to the anxious wait in the early hours of Monday morning, we can only wish Curiosity a safe landing. Everything else is in the hands of the NASA's engineering prowess and a heavy dose of Martian good luck.
As I have severally commented on these pages, it is time we in Africa start to take science and technology serious.
If we are to break the jinx of under-development, there is just no other alternative than to embrace science the way other people have.
We live in a world that, for better or worse, have come to rely heavily on science and technology; we cannot afford to continue to believe that we can, somehow, beat the system.
That is unless we want to continue to be the world’s under-achievers.
It is quite simple when we analyse it closely.
It is said that knowledge is power, and the evidence is quite overwhelming that it is those people who have acquired knowledge who rule the world.
We do not talk only about political rulership. The economic world is also ruled by those equipped with better knowledge.
Again, the evidence is incontrovertible.
We only need to ask why Western Multi-National Companies (MNCs) continue to dominate our economies in Africa.
We need only to ask why it is possible for these companies to take away 90-96% of profits from our mineral wealth while we receive insulting 3-10%.
The answer is simple: they have the technological prowess to extract and refine these minerals into useful products whereas, for us, they are just chunks of rocks in the ground!
I know that there are Africans performing at the highest levels of mathematics, science and technology at the most prestigious of laboratories all over the world – my own brother is among them.
But when it comes to our nations harnessing the brains of these individuals, we are found wanting.
For reasons that remain obscure and baffling, we still fail to realize the utility of harnessing the vast potentials our scientists offer.
Apart from the brief Biafran interregnum, no African nation has made a conscious effort to go scientific!
We fail to us the powers of our scientists and allow them to go other countries. We then turn around to employ expatriates who cost us far more. We continue to believe that these expats, will somehow, help us with ‘technology transfer.’
Rather than give prominence to our men of science, we neglect them and rather give prominence to cassocked charlatans who called themselves men-of-god.
We give prominence to these fraudulent imposters in our private and national lives.
These phonies are up there with the presidents, the ministers and all the most important people in the land.
The shameless frauds have also managed to swindle their ways into the economic scheme of things – so much so that many of them are among the most seriously monied people in our land.
They own vast properties, even why they keep preaching to their ignorant congregation that everything in this world is vanity.
The priests also have managed to buy their ways into our media, so much so that today, religious programmes take a big chunk of our airtime.
There will be little problem, if these priests can show or tell us a single thing all their stupid gyrations, spiritual pyrotechnics and adjurations have achieved for us.
They only reply in abstractions when you ask them why all the prayers are required of us.
They talk about prayers protecting a nation and offering a people peace.
When you ask why religion, more than any other thing, have been the single cause of wars and violence, they scratch their heads and talk about people not following god’s path.
They talk about Jesus being the answer, when you ask them what the question is, they cannot give you an answer.
When you ask them what example they can cite where people have staved off hunger or stop a flood by praying, they tell you that the ways of their god is mysterious.
The ways of god could be mysterious, but that shouldn’t stop us from learning from what other people did to get to where they are today.
The only lesson we can learn about human progress is that, it is only those societies that have been able to successfully separate the gods from the affairs of men, which have made any progress in their development.
Religion is and should always be private affairs. Affairs between a man and his creator should strictly be between the two of them.
Any imposter, who claims the power to mediate, is simply that, an imposter.
It is quite simple. By equipping us with an awesome machine in the form of a brain, the gods have done the best they could for us.
It is left for us to use this incredible machine to improve our lot on earth. The human brains contain an infinite numbers of cells which suggest an infinite numbers of possibilities. We are limited only by the power of our imaginations.
Why do we in Africa then neglect and sentence this brain into exile, and continue to think that prayer is a good substitute for thinking?
The evidence is all around us that it is only the people who dare to use the power of their brains that have managed to achieve any break-through.
From the laptop with which I write this article, to the internet I will use to send it to my publisher, to the radio set that offers me background music, to the portable music set tied to your ears, to the cars, the trains, the airplanes that offer transportation, all are products of science.
Why then do we in Africa continue to believe that some gods are coming from wherever to come and solve problems for us?
Why then do we in Africa continue to dance ourselves silly in supplications to fathers in heaven, when we should know well that no god has ever solve a single problem for any people?
Why then do we continue to pray 24/7 instead of sitting down to THINK and look for earthly solutions to earthly problems?
Rather for our leaders to parley with priests and ask us to fast and pray, our presidents should also throw challenges to our scientists and engineers to solve problems.
That is what leaders elsewhere did: they challenge their people to tackle any problem that confront them.
The Dutch did it after a flood in 1953 that took some lives and devastated a big chunk of the southern part of their country. They successfully build the Delta Project to ward off future disaster. The Dutch invented new technologies to solve the problems of flood.
Till date, the Netherlands have been spared flood of the 1953 scale, and the Dutch today reaps handsomely from their investment in flood control technologies.
When told that the Russians will beat the Americans in sending a man into space, President JF Kennedy decided to up the ante: He announced the Great New American Enterprise - America will send men to the moon and bring them back within the decade.
The result is the Apollo programmes that resulted in men landing on and planting the American flag on the face of the moon.
Wither art thou, Africa!