Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Sciences of Survival

Survival Science in Action
There is a game you can play on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. You start with a random article and click on the first link in the first true paragraph which is not in brackets and is not a footnote. You then repeat this action, counting as you go until you inevitably reach philosophy where you find yourself in a loop between that and reality. The object of the game is to find the article which is furthest from philosophy in terms of clicks or one which does not link to philosophy at all. Here’s an example rooted at my favourite pudding, cheesecake, dessert, food, plant, life, objects, physics, natural science, science, knowledge, facts, experience, concept and finally philosophy. Another with Kevin Bacon, Animal House, comedy film, film, recording, cave painting, painting, paint, liquid, state of matter, phase, physical science, natural science and ultimately philosophy, although by a slightly convoluted route. Let’s have one more starting with Japan, island nation, country, political geography, human geography, geography, science and so forth. Try it some time.

What we see is that all things (bar very few exceptions) do in fact, lead to philosophy by successive wider definition, but that is not the whole story. Apart from a few philosophy related starting points, almost all of the routes travel through science or mathematics, a formal science. At some point or another science gets involved, determining how the universe works, how all the parts interact with each other and how everything progresses through time and space. Without science, we’d have no understanding and with no understanding, we’d have no way to make informed decisions. That’s not to say that we each need a degree in all fields of science in order to get by, but each of us, throughout the day make assessments and decisions based on some level of understanding of science, be it working out change, guessing if it’s going to rain, driving a car, cooking a meal, building a house or performing brain surgery. Just because you’re not thinking about equations, doesn’t mean you’re not using science.

In a survival situation, decisions are crucial and can mean the difference between life and death. Although hands on skills are important for execution of the actions we decide to perform, it’s the knowledge we have that helps up make the right decisions in the first place. It may be that you’re an expert climber, but climbing costs energy and has an associated risk. However, there’s good vantage and potential resources at the top of the cliff, so what do you do? A basic assessment and risk analysis will give you the costs and benefits of making the climb. From there you can make a decision. And how do you make such an assessment? Knowledge. Knowledge about health, energy, physics and bit of mathematics will have the right decision made in no time.

There are many fields of science, each covering its own area. There are many overlaps and  specialisations and then whole fields of non-sciencey sounding disciplines like Search and Rescue, which involve a wide variety of science and mathematics. Not all science is physics, chemistry and biology, there is also geography, sociology and psychology, amongst other, and we also have a lot to learn from economics and political science. These help us understand more about where we are, navigation and how people work together.

Science has a lot to teach us about survival, so let me demystify some of the fields and terms.

Formal science or formal systems cover logic, mathematics and statistics including operational research, game theory and decision theory. These might sound a bit scary, but they are simple umbrella terms. The formal sciences are what we’ll be using to make the decisions, based on assessments we make using other sciences. Fields such as probability, geometry and other aspects of mathematics form the building blocks of most natural sciences and engineering.

Natural science is a broad church covering physical, earth and life sciences. They all cross over a little. The physical sciences include physics, of course, which is concerned with matter, materials, motion, forces and energy, including chemical energy, electricity, light and heat, the last of which is very important to us. Chemistry in general is a little low level for our needs, but will help us understand contamination, purification and fire, for instance. Astronomy is a little high level, but can aid navigation and combined with oceanography, tidal prediction.  

Earth sciences, including ecology, geology, geography and other environmental sciences develop our understanding of our surroundings and predict how they may change. Climatology too, and in conjunction with meteorology, an insight into the weather. Hydrology will tell us about our water systems, which could be vital to our survival if water is not readily available.

Life sciences, or at least the ones that interest us, are based largely around biology. An insight into anatomy, physiology, health and medicine will tell us about how we and other animals function. This will aid us greatly in assessing our water, energy and food needs. Botany, zoology and food science will give us all we require to choose the right diet and make compromises, when necessary.

Engineering is the application of science and mathematics to design and manufacturing. Civil engineering will help us build structures such shelters, boats and signals. Electrical and mechanical  engineering allow us to understand, utilise, build and repair electronic and mechanical devices, such as torches, radios, gears, pumps and tools. Engineering principles, such as leverage and pulley systems allow us to work smart, saving vital energy.

Behavioural science is more concerned with individuals and small groups. Psychology is an obvious addition and in conjunction with anthropology, communication and management skills will help us in survival situations involving groups of people. Ethology, or animal behaviour, will not only help us avoid dangerous game, but place traps and also find water.

Social science, including sociology, economics and politics will teach us about large groups of people. This may seem an unlikely science to study, but will give us clues about where we might find people, who might be our only way of self rescue. Education helped me write this blog and the books. The principles, if you heed them, will allow you to retain information for when you need it. Of course, history teaches us a lot about what has worked or otherwise in the past.

There is a lot to learn about survival from science.

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