Millennium Weekend: ONE GIANT STEP; the 20th Century Can Easily Be Described as the Century of Science, Says Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie

Article excerpt

In the developed countries we began the century talking about the rights of man and ended it discussing the rights of trees and foxes

There is no shortage of contenders for the most significant single event of the 20th century.

The shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; The moon landing; The bombing of Pearl Harbour; Martin Luther King's "I had a Dream speech"; The liberation of Belsen; The fall of the Berlin Wall; The Assassination of JFK.

All are worthy candidates for the title, but Neil Armstrong's small step for a man but giant leap for mankind encapsulates two remarkable qualities, one unique to the 20th century and one constant throughout history: the omnipresence of science and the amazing ambition of the human race.

The 20th century can easily be described as the century of science.

It began with the invention of flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and ended, just a few days ago, with the return of the Space Shuttle from a successful mission to repair the Hubble telescope.

But the highlight, the pinnacle of scientific achievement, was putting a man on the moon.

In some ways it achieved very little: Mr Armstrong brought back a few remarkable memories and some worthless bits or rock. In others - the technological spin-offs, the way we view our lives and our planet - it will have an everlasting influence.

It was also a wonderful example of man's endeavour. Putting a man on the moon was as much about adventure, exploration, teamwork and faith as it was about computer chips and fuse boxes.

In a century which also witnessed the worst excesses of man's brutality, it is important we remind ourselves of our achievements, our ability to succeed.

And let us not forget it was an American who first stepped on another planet. This was America's century. From Henry Ford, via McDonald's, to Microsoft, it has been American inventions and American businessmen who have dominated the last 100 years.

The people of the United States took the innovations such as the motor car, the cinema and the computer and turned them into global products. Politically, culturally and commercially this vast country has reigned supreme.

It has also been the victor in the ideologically fisticuffs which waged throughout most of the last 100 years. The 20th century has been the battlefield for two ideas which sprung from the previous centuries: the war between capitalism and communism.

Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848 but the ideas were not put into practice until 1917 when Lenin emerged victorious from the Russian Revolution.

The next 60 years were to see communism flower and wilt across the globe. People's republics were established in China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe and South America but at the end of the century only North Korea and the pseudo-socialist regimes of Cuba and China are left.

And it was in the name of ideology that the worst crimes of the century were committed. This century of progress, a time which saw remarkable advances in health, science, welfare and democracy, was also the era of world wars and mass genocide.

The roll call is a sobering reminder of man's inhumanity to man. The First World War: 18 million soldiers killed, millions more died from poverty and disease in the years immediately afterwards.

The Second World War: 55 million dead, including more than six million in Hitler's final solution.

Stalinism: at least eight million killed, possibly many more. Then there were the millions who died in Mao's Chinese famine, the killing fields of Cambodia, the butchery in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

Yet this has also been the century in which the term "population explosion" was coined. This year the world's population reached six billion. Millions of these people are undernourished, undereducated and underpaid. …