Science with a human touch

People seem to be full of boundless confidence about the value of science and technology and what it can achieve. However, those in the education industry feel a sense of crisis.

Considered the innovative core of Silicon Valley, Stanford has incorporated the humanities into its science curriculum for years, such as by adding digital humanities courses to its digital program.

The humanities have always been looking back at the track of history and culture from the past, but now, we must accept the convergence of science and technology and humanities as our daily routine, said Richard Saller, the former dean of Stanford’s school of humanities and sciences.

It’s easy to forget to be modest about the unknown by placing too much emphasis on the limitless possibilities of new technology. Therefore, without teaching humanistic values, schools risk creating the next Frankenstein, he said.

The challenge is to teach students how to find questions from the historical depths and philosophical values while using technology to answer them.

Studying science and technology alone will not allow students to identify social problems and apply their skills to the economic or social issues we face.

Because of this, education systems need to have cross-field practice to serve as a base for innovation.

Interdisciplinary curricula are also emerging at some of Hong Kong’s top universities, but for the academic community in Hong Kong, the late Joseph Needham is arguably the icon of humanistic concern combined with the spirit of science.

His legacy and foundation encourage outstanding students with high empathy to contribute to the academic fields of science and technology.

Famous for his 26-volume Science and Civilization in China, Needham was a prominent biochemist and social activist who dedicated his life to the history of science and technology in China.

His primary question, now known as the Needham Question, was: given China’s remarkable scientific achievements before the 15th century, why has modern science not developed in Chinese civilization, but only in Europe?

Together with his collaborators, he demonstrated that China and the East made many contributions in transforming ancient to modern science. Moreover, he displayed a broad vision and the courage to pursue utopian projects and entertain nonconformist social views in all his activities, including discussions on ancient China’s political systems, geography and social mobility.

The Joseph Needham Foundation for Science and Civilisation, formerly the East Asian History of Science Foundation founded in 1979, promotes his legacy with the local academic community, such as engaging secondary school students in STEM education series since 2014.

The foundation’s transformation began after its support of the construction of a permanent library in Cambridge to house Needham’s massive collection – now the Needham Research Institute – in 1991.

The Joseph Needham Merit Scholarship program with local tertiary institutions is another of the foundation’s core projects. Last month, 10 graduating students from the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology won the 2021 program.

The recipients, who have already been accepted by internationally renowned universities, were judged for their academic achievements and demonstrated empathy and humanity. The scholarship will provide financial support for four years.

“The late Dr Needham was a great scientist and a passionate humanist who cared deeply about humanity and spoke out truly at times when the truth was considered unpopular,” said the foundation’s chairman, Peter Lee.

“Our foundation is committed to nurturing a community of future Needham scholars who can excel in their fields of scholarship with a strong sense of empathy, humility and also the courage to defend and speak the truth.”

(This article was published at The Standard on June 29, 2021: Education: Science with a human touch )

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