A parable of the pure and the practical why we must pursue basic scientific research
Why We Must Pursue Basic Scientific Research
Many representatives of Government, Industry and Academia arguethat governments should invest only in research that is likely togenerate immediate and specific benefits, either wealth creation orimprovements in the quality of life. They find undirected researchin particle physics, mathematics, cosmology, low-temperaturephysics and many other basic sciences to be useless and expensiveluxuries that consume resources rather than promoting EconomicGrowth and Human Welfare. They are wrong!
Fundamental physicists would be hard-pressed to point to anythinguseful that was directly dependent on their theorising. Thediscoveries of particle physicists or cosmologists are intellectuallyirrelevant to almost everyone—does it matter how old the universeis or if matter consists of two or 17 particles? If individuals wish tocontemplate the universe, let them do it in their spare time at theirown expense. It is far more important that we encourage our “bestbrains” to solve real problems and leave theology to the religiousprofessionals.
Had Faraday, Rontgen and Hertz focussed on solving the “realproblems” of their day, we would have waited much longer forelectric motors, X-rays and radios. It is true that today’s“fundamental physicists” are concerned with exotic phenomenathat are not at all useful in themselves. Nonetheless, their work hasmade and continues to make an enormous impact on our lives.
We shall demonstrate how curiousity-driven searches forfundamental knowledge have proven to be at least as effective asdirect searches for solutions to specific societal problems, whetherfrom the discoveries themselves or from the frontier technologiesthey required.
But our Critic has a point. Consider CERN:
ere research facility for high-energy physics; Supported
by its 20 European member states; With 2500 full-time employeesCERN hosts about 10,000 visiting scientists from 113 differentcountries. CERN, among its accomplishments:
Found the neutral currents of the electroweak theory,
Used neutrinos to confirm the quark hypothesis,
Discovered the long sought Higgs Boson last year!
None of these triumphs are likely to contribute anything at all tohuman health or wealth. Useless Science?
Not quite useless: Think Technology Transfer!
CERN is a hotbed of innovative technologies involvingAccelerators, Cryogenics, Detectors, Electronics, InformationTechnology, Magnets, Material Science, Superconductors &c.
Through licencing or joint ventures, CERN makes these resourcesavailable for scientific and commercial purposes. Some examples ofCERN’s Technogical Spinoff:
1965 The World-Wide-Web, by physicists but for the world!
2004 GEANT-4: CERN’s simulation software for physics,space science, medicine and radiology.
2003 DxRay, a spinoff company, develops advanced digitalX-ray scanners based on CERN technology.
2012 “Thanks to scientists working on particle acceleration atCERN, the Geneva International Airport is the proud owner ofthe largest solar energy system in Switzerland” (Forbes).
But CERN’s primary purposes are to pursue the secrets of Natureand to train the next generation of innovators.
The Many Virtues of Basic Science: I. Clinical Medicine
Each of these discoveries earned a Nobel Prize!
II. Basic Science and Information Technology
All but two of these discoveries earned Nobel Prizes!
All but one of these discoveries earned Nobel Prizes!
How ‘Atom Smashers’ Became Big Business
Cyclotrons were created for pure research: to study the basicbuilding blocks of matter. But these and other particle acceleratorscontribute directly to wealth creation and human welfare. Some30,000 accelerators operate today. Very few do fundamentalresearch. Mostly they are used for industry and medicine: IonImplantation, Material Processing, Particle Beam Therapy, MedicalIsotope Production, Food Irradiation, Nondestructive Inspectionetc.
Energy loss due to ‘synchrotron radiation,’ once a problem atelectron accelerators, has become a multi-billion dollar bounty.
Synchrotron light is useful for many basic sciences, medicine andindustry. About 70 of these large, expensive and sophisticated lightsources are deployed in 20 countries. Far more powerful ‘FourthGeneration’ light sources are on the horizon.
General Relativity to Global Positioning:
The latency period have can various causes, among them:Necessity (e.g., solar panels); War (e.g., nuclear power); or MissingTechnology (e.g., GPS needs satellites and sophisticatedelectronics as well as general relativity.)
La Chance ne sourit qu’aux esprit bien pr´
Research must be done with eyes wide open
Once upon a time a Prince searched for a needle in ahaystack. Instead he found the farmer’s daughter.
In 1856 young Henry Perkin to tried to synthesize quinine.
Instead, he discovered the first aniline dye.
In 1896 Henri Becquerel set out to prove that the sun emitsX-rays. Instead, he discovered radioactivity.
In 1965 a chemist was assessing the efficacy of an anti-ulcermedication. Instead he stumbled upon the blockbusterartificial sweetener aspartame.
In 1996, chemists at Pfizer held clinical trials for a new drugto treat angina and hypertension. The trials failed, but anentirely unanticipated side effect on men led Pfizer to marketViagra for male impotence.
Basic scientific research is among the few areas wherein nations ofthe world cooperate. Modern science emerged as an multinationalendeavor: Copernicus (a Pole), Tycho Brahe (a Dane), Kepler (aGerman), Galileo (an Italian) and Newton (an Englishman) taughtus our place in the heavens. Whilst these were all white, Christian,European men, today everyone can contribute to the ScientificAdventure regardless of nationality, religion, race or sex. Amongmany international collaborations:
International Linear Collider: 19 nations
ITER (Thermonuclear Research): EU + six nations
Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan,Belarus. Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China,Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark,Ecuador, Egypt. Estonia, France, Finland, Georgia, Germany,Ghana, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy,Japan, Jordan, Korea, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macedonia,Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Montenegro, Mozambique,New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru,Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Rwanda,Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia, Slovak Republic, South Africa,Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia,Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Ukraine, USA,Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam.
Five (of Many) Physicists Who Spun Themselves Off
Allan Cormack: Nuclear and particle physicist, longtimechairman Tufts physics dept., invented the CAT scanner forwhich he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Walter Gilbert: Accomplished theoretical physicist becamemolecular biologist, shared Nobel in Chemistry, cofounder &first CEO Biogen, now celebrated art photographer &philanthropist.
Paul Ginsparg: Theoretical physicist and IT expert, founder ofthe free online archive for physics and many other sciences.
Won MacArthur award for “changing how physics gets done.”
Leon Lederman: Experimental physicist, codiscovered secondneutrino & fifth quark, Nobelist, many STEM initiatives, e.g.,creating the Illinois Math & Science Academy.
Andrei Sakharov: Famed Soviet theoretical physicist. humanrights champion and Nobel Laureate in Peace, led hisgovernment to sign nuclear test ban treaty.
Steam engines were invented long before they could beunderstood, thus challenging physicists to develop the scienceof thermodynamics.
The 19th century inventions of spark coils (by Ruhmkorff),photography (by Daguerre) and mercury air pumps (byGeissler) made many turn-of-the-century discoveries possible:radio waves, X-rays, radioactivity, the electron, atomicnumber, cathode ray tubes.
The antenna used by Penzias and Wilson to discover thecosmic microwave background was built by ATT for earlysatellite communication.
Mysterious gamma-ray bursts were detected by US Air Forcesatellites looking for illicit Soviet nuclear tests.
Supercomputers enable otherwise impossible calculations inboth pure and applied science, e.g., the four color theorem.
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