Just when I think this thread has passed it returns.
I'll give you two quotes from the late Isaac Asimov--whose works I grew up reading and who I agree with on many of his points (though not all).
The first is:
Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.
It's really important to imagine and have faith in a real future--and that's particularly what most science fiction is about (especially in Asimov's day). Methodical science does not provide hope, has no morality and is no different than animal instinct. It can be performed soullessly and with no regard for humanity.
What gives life and value to science is the inspiration of the theorists and researchers who are guided by vision and that vision stems from their human experience--their shared humanity with all of us. So science is more than "numbers and methods" and is as altruistic as religion and faith at it's core. As a person of faith, I can fully relate to this and have no problem walking hand -in-hand with science and my own experience and beliefs--they both celebrate and inquire into the same mysteries and wonders of life and are driven by a desire to see and know what has only previously been imagined.
So as long as scientists are more than "biological computers" and are humans who encompass the spirit of human desire and hope--then there is always hope. In a time when people are less versed in science and see less value in it, then it's all the more important that those special individuals with greater vision, greater faith and greater imagination keep attempting to kindle that spark in others and shed light for those who have none. As long as science is guided by scientists who value people more than their art we are in good hands.
I think this is what Asimov was getting at. He himself held scientific credentials yet wrote profusely saying it gave his life meaning. It's interesting that a man of high intellect, with few (if any) spiritual beliefs--was driven to look beyond science at the potentials of it's impact on humanity. I admire that more than the science he practiced.
People need the actions and words and deeds of individuals to impart to them why there is hope and things to stand in wonder of.
Every researcher now looking beyond "theory" and "procedure" is as important as the armies of researcher's, engineers and mathematicians trying to prove a theory--they go hand in hand.
Asimov said that the core of science fiction is crucial to mankind's salvation. That's why I've prodded you so much on your focus on "practicalities over all else"...science is a two-sided coin.
Asimov also said:
It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.
It's really important that we all come to understand this is our salvation--in the sense of mankind having any hope of a good future and as long as we are bound here in this life, in this universe and in our limited dimension. People who already know this have a higher obligation to maintain hope for others--to have faith for them when they aren't capable of it themselves. That is what faith is for. Without it, there is no hope and the world will spiral down at every point when challenges exceed our capabilities.
Ultimately, we must have faith in ourselves, in our stories and in a future. If one can't do this, and practices "mere science", then that individual is simply gratifying their own intellect or serving as a drone in the greater scientific collective--blind and with no concept of the real significance of their work--a work that can change the future of mankind.
So yeah, I'm optimistic. I have faith in people driven by a higher vision and when they become scientists it can't help but be encouraging. I do have concerns about the future and as a person of faith and very cognizant that human limitations may be our downfall at any moment. But as long as there are individuals who don't surrender, there's always hope.
Had to add this one last quote by Asimov:
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'
Now I am going to go get in an elevator and go down so I can jump up at the end and be weightless. I hear the planets are aligned and their gravity will catch me.