Florian Aigner answers

Once important – now passé

Florian Aigner (Image: private)

I don't know how potatoes are harvested. Sure, I know they grow underground and you have to somehow pull up the protruding green part to extract them. But what is the best way to go about it? And what do potato leaves look like, anyway?

My great grandparents would have been mortified had they learned that their great grandson was hopelessly overchallenged when it came to the concept of potato harvesting. In their day and age, this knowledge was as commonplace as installing smartphone apps, sending emails and complaining of battery drain in ours. Potato proficiency was the order of the day. Now it's more or less obsolete.

Every generation determines what knowledge is indispensable. Some things remain the same over centuries, but many change. And then it becomes incredibly easy to point the finger at today's youth: It's outrageous! There is so much they don't know! They don't know enough literary classics, they ignore established rules of etiquette; and they don't have the faintest idea about how to decapitate, draw and cook a Christmas goose!

This phenomenon is particularly prominent in the field of science, where research changes even faster than the generally accepted rules of etiquette. Just a few years ago, a physicist had to be able to produce endless pages of error-free calculations. This skill is almost irrelevant today: computers do all the onerous computing and physicists can concentrate on what really counts.

In the old days, a chemist (actually, they were called alchemists back then) had to know how to extract certain substances from certain plants and minerals in order to perform mind-boggling experiments. Today's chemists needn't care less; they order their chemicals online. But they do need to know about atomic orbitals, hydrogen bridge bonds and electronegativity, concepts those old alchemists probably couldn't even spell.

What was once important is now passé. What is important now was unknown back then. And one day today's knowledge will have become immaterial as well. Such is the way of the world. This constant process of renewal is one of the few things that will, in fact, never change. And that's good. Because it means that humankind is evolving. Things that change survive. Only dead things stay the same.

Florian Aigner is a science journalist who lives in Vienna.

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