Dear Nikola, recently you were honored to be one of the speakers at the TEDx Zemun conference in Belgrade. What are your impressions of the event, and what was the feedback of young people who had the pleasure of attending?
It is always a pleasure and an honour to be a lecturer at a TEDx event. For me it was very interesting to prepare a lecture about the influence of modern science on our everyday lives. Also, I enjoyed giving a lecture to this very motivated and particular audience. There were a lot of questions during the break, and I can say that I am satisfied with the affect the lecture had on the people who attended. TEDx presentations are very demanding to prepare for and always challenging.
Your field of interest is astronomy. As the Deputy Director of the biggest scientific education institution in South East Europe, Petnica Science Center, can you tell us about your approach to promoting science in Serbia?
Petnica Science Center (PSC) is an independent, non-profit institution for the extracurricular scientific education of high school students in southeastern Europe. For the past 35 years, it has been a place of free thinking and innovative ideas for students with a strong interest in science and the scientific method. There are no grades, tests, exams, or certificates given, and the curricula are easily adapted in accordance with recent findings and current topics in science.
PSC utilizes a peer-to-peer education system, where university students are the tutors of high school students, providing a more informal setting for learning to foster the development of scientific ideas. The primary PSC philosophy is to promote scientific literacy and help high school students understand the scientific method. Through hands-on approaches to research and science, students learn how to read appropriate literature, learn basic research methods, and are encouraged to develop their own scientific questions.
Training and activities allow students to create their own independent research project proposals. After the project proposals are reviewed and approved, students have the opportunity to conduct their own research, analyze the results, and write a final peer-reviewed manuscript.
Each year, 1500 high school students from Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, FYR of Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina attend regular programs at PSC, each spending an average of 35 days at the campus over the course of a year. A network of senior associates, lecturers, and peer educators includes nearly 2500 people from over 450 academic institutions and companies.
How much does the government support scientists in Serbia? Should we look up more to your colleagues in other EU countries?
It is very important that every country and every society understands that science and education are the driving force for economic development. These are not expenses for the state budget, they are investments in the future. Luckily, Serbia is a member of European Horizon 2020, and scientists can use European funds for science, technology, and innovation. Serbia, as a small country, should decide for itself the right direction for science and economic development. It is important to have fundamental sciences as well as applied sciences. The problem is to detect the best model for funding science projects in Serbia. We should analyze the approaches European countries of similar size are taking to find the best solution.
At the TEDx Zemun event in Belgrade you talked about an extremely interesting subject: five scientific discoveries that are being developed and that are about to change the world we live in. One of them was energy conservation with electric cars as an example. What do you think is stopping the massive production of these vehicles?
This energy issue is emerging today. One of the most important industries in the future will be the one that is dealing with solar energy and energy storage. The main problem for solar energy is the challenge of storing it for future use, or for use in different parts of the world. With the new generation of batteries it is now possible to collect this energy for future use. This is mostly being implemented in the electric car industry, but also in housing. With the old batteries there were problems with the environment, but now we have rechargeable batteries with long lives. We also have a very developed recycling industry.
Electric cars as an example of this type of industry were very expensive from the very beginning, and just a small group of consumers could afford them. Today we are entering the new era of the electric car industry, with prices similar to regular cars. Also the distances that e-cars can travel with one charge are now great enough that you can have good mobility with an electric car.
I think this is the future of energy.
You also talked about extra-solar planets and life outside the Earth. This is a subject we could dedicate an entire new article to, but still, tell us what are the chances of making any kind of contact with other civilizations as advanced as we are, in our lifetimes?
There are many popular articles about discoveries of extra-solar planets in newspapers and magazines. Also there is a big interest in discoveries inside our own Solar System. It is correct to say that the public is willing to hear more details about the characteristic of the planets, satellites, comets, asteroids, and extra-solar planets, and to take a look at the latest photos and details that have never been seen before. But also, all of us are waiting for real evidence that life existed or still exists somewhere else beyond the Earth. I am convinced that we will find at least traces of simple life forms from the past in the next few decades. This will be the final shift away from the anthropocentric philosophy of mankind.
It is very well known that the Project Mars One is a very certain reality and that more than 200.000 people have applied for a one-way ticket to Mars in order to be the first colonists on the red planet. What are we gaining from this project, can this be the beginning of conquering space?
Mankind’s actual exploration of space started with the first satellites, then the Moon landing, and launching spaceships for planetary exploration. This is just a new era in astronautics. The most important thing about Mars One, and also with Space X, is that these are private initiatives. So space exploration is no longer reserved just for governmental and intergovernmental institutions and organizations anymore. Everyone can start and fund a project to explore the Universe. These types of projects are promoting science, astronomy, and astronautics. More and more young people are thinking of choosing courses of study that can lead to jobs in these fields. The other very important benefit is that we will accomplish a lot of science and technology improvements and discoveries because we have these projects.
Micro chips, artificial hi-tech body parts, and pacemakers are already part of us, if we can say so. You stated in your presentation that part of our future is probably going to be cyborgs. If we can assume that in 20 years’ time some of us will be half humans and half machines, what are the chances of „saving“ our conscience, as it were? Will it be possible to be immortal?
We have been using artificial devices for a few decades now, for example pacemakers. And we are very familiar with them. But we are entering the era of a huge number of additional devices and artificial parts that will replace the problematic parts of the human body. We already are enjoying sport competitions with athletes with artificial legs, for example. With the new 3D printing machines we can print some parts of organs. So the future is smiling on mankind with a lot of possibilities for improving the body’s function and longevity. The question about saving the conscience is very complex, and I think that we will wait a very long time for this possibility to turn into reality. I think that we will need to explore our brains much more before we succeed with it. But it is possible that the (far) future citizens of Earth will have the opportunity to conserve their consciences and save them to hard drives.
Is genome editing immoral to you, and do you think playing with human DNA can bring us more trouble than benefit?
Every big scientific and technological discovery in history has had the potential for misuse. But I think that the possibility of productive use has always been promising enough to allow development to go forward. It is important to define the proper use of every discovery and to control it.
As a scientist and an astronomer, how do you see the future of the human race?
I am always the optimist. I think that we will use science and technology for the positive development of mankind. At the same time we will find a way to take care about the environment, and to keep our resources for future generations.