What does basic science do for me?

Why should we invest in fundamental research? Basic science does not solve today’s problems, so how can we justify diverting valuable resources from immediate needs? Researchers in the most esoteric fields such as string theory and high energy physics have no idea how their work will lead to something practical.

There are two valuable consequences of basic science: (1) the generation of new knowledge and understanding that could not be anticipated by linear extrapolation; and (2) the training of bright minds that make direct contributions to our society. In short, science is an investment in the future. Most of the amazing technologies that we take for granted in the first part of the 21st century resulted from the fruits of basic science in the first half of the 20th century.

Basic science generates new knowledge and understanding that could not be anticipated by linear extrapolation….

While basic science may take decades to find practical applications, the returns on investment are exceptional. For example, in the early 1900s, physicists were puzzling over how atoms and subatomic particles could be in two places simultaneously. This lead to the famous Schrodinger cat paradox – the mind-boggling concept that a cat can be half dead and half alive until it is observed.

Even the brightest minds of the time could not predict the profound implications that quantum mechanics would have on the daily lives of future citizens. Nevertheless, quantum mechanics was later applied to understanding semiconductors, a development that led Bell Labs researchers to invent the transistor. It took about half a centaury for the curiosity of a few dozen scientists studying the fundamental nature of the atom to be transformed into one of the most lucrative markets ever, impacting all aspect of our lives.

At about the same time that some physicists were pondering quantum mechanics, others labored to understand the fundamental nature of the gravitational force. By 1918, Einstein formulated the general theory of relativity, which showed gravity to originate in the curvature of 4-dimmensional space.

The curvature of spacetime may appear to be a fantasy in the mind of a mad genius; but, the Global Positioning System (GPS), which is used by commercial aircraft for navigation and gives driving directions to soccer moms in minivans, relies heavily on general relativity. An understanding of how time slows in a gravitational field is an essential ingredient for GPS technology.

Those who argue against funding for esoteric fundamental research might consider a world in which early 20th century scientists had been relegated to work on pressing matters of the day. Perhaps they would have come up with better bearings for horse-drawn carriages, or improved the steam engine. Maybe these brilliant minds would have made incremental gains in the quality of life of the average citizen. But, the losses to future generations would have been unconscionable.

Without quantum mechanics, we would lack small fast computers to run complex medical imaging apparatus. There would be no iPODS to store our music, nor PCs for the masses to get information over the internet. No cell phones to streamline our lives. Most importantly, we would not have the processing power required to fuel future innovations, such as mass sequencing of genetic material and the development of novel cures for diseases that in the past took countless lives.

Consider a world where Einstein and his compatriots were relegated to designing better refrigerators. What would be the loss to the average citizen if we never learned about the curvature of space time?

Consider a hypothetical world where Einstein’s theory of gravity had not been discovered. While a world without general relativity may not have made a large difference to technological advances for decades, the void would have deprived future scientists and citizens of an inspirational role model.

How could anyone ever have imagined a practical application that is affected by the fact that a clock runs imperceptibly slower in the stronger gravitational field at the earth’s surface than in orbit? These are not the kinds of things we notice in our everyday lives. But, this effect needs to be taken into account to make the global positioning system (GPS) work properly.

GPS works on the simple concept of triangulation, so its an obvious technology for a space-faring civilization. Engineers could have designed, built and ground-tested a system before sending several multibillion satellites into space. Imagine the engineers’ surprise when the GPS coordinates read by a receiver were found to be tens of miles off the mark. Not knowing about curvature of 4-dimmensional space-time, nobody would have had a clue that the source of the problem could be so esoteric. Granted, the GPS system might have eventually been engineered by trial and error, but most likely, countless hours and resources would have been wasted that far exceeds the cost of the original basic research.

Ironically, engineers were so suspicious of general relativity that they built two timing circuits on the first GPS satellites – one that accounted for Einstein’s theory, and the other that didn’t. Einstein was proven right when the system became operational.

Given that 90% of today’s economy is based on technology that came about from basic science of many decades ago, we should be thankful that our ancestors allowed a few dozen scientists the luxury of thinking grand thoughts. Without them, our present standard of living would be far inferior to the luxuries that we enjoy.

The question that needs to be asked is what percentage of our present productivity should be invested in basic science.

Consider the painful dilemma of feeding and clothing the poor, and more importantly, improving humanity’s quality of life. For the sake of argument, assume that the total excess yearly productivity can only feed 10% of the starving population. Do we divert 100% of this excess productivity to feed a small fraction of those in need today? What if investing 1% of our yearly productivity in basic science leads to the elimination of starvation in 10 years? Is it ethical to invest in the future at the expense of those who are suffering in the present? Would it be more or less ethical to invest 0.5% in science if the innovations took 20 years to pay off? How do we weigh the suffering of a small number of people today against the cumulative suffering of many over a longer time period?

These are questions that need to be addressed by an informed citizenry. If we focus solely on improving existing technologies or developing new ones based on our present knowledge, we will never have unexpected breakthroughs that lead to transformative technologies. Just 100 years ago, even the brightest minds could not have conceived of a world wide web or personal computers. In fact, when I was in college in the late 1970s, people thought it odd that I owned a computer. They could not imagine any use for such a device. This state of afairs changed drastically in less than 2 decades.

“Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” — Richard P. Feynman, Physicist.

I find basic science an endeavor that makes life worth living. To be driven by passionate curiosity to answer the most basic questions about nature and ourselves lies at the heart of what it is to be human. I find the act of pondering the deepest questions a spiritual and uplifting activity. I am willing to sit in a small room at my desk with pencil and paper for days, or turn knobs in a darkened lab for weeks on end if there is a chance that I will gain a slightly deeper understanding of the universe.

Richard Feynman said it best, “Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” I derive great pleasure from learning and producing fundamental knowledge. I don’t mind that my work may have no impact on society until many years after I am gone. I can survive without wealth and fame. Though I am pretty sure I will not be lucky enough to make a major breakthrough, I still enjoy the process.

Brilliant minds should be enlisted to work on the most challenging problems where the long-term payoff is the greatest. I believe that our society can afford to invest a small percentage of its productivity to such endeavors. It enriches us today and provides new ideas for future generations, who will undoubtedly reap the greatest benefits.

Mark G. Kuzyk

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