Monday, August 25, 2014

Why do science?

While preparing for the Intuit TedX conference (see my last post), the organizers also asked one other hard question: why should we (i.e. nonscientists) care about neutrinos or astrophysics.  Scientists do not like to hear these questions, but we ignore them at our peril - especially funding peril.   The people of the United States are paying for much of our research through their taxes, and they have both a right and a good reason to ask these questions.    Unfortunately, they are not easy to answer, at least for me.   When asked, I usually reply along one of two lines, neither of them completely satisfying.

1) We don't know what this is useful for now, but it will likely be (or could be) useful one day.   This is easily backed up by many examples of physical phenomena that were long considered totally irrelevant to everyday live, but are now part of everyday technology.   Quantum mechanics and electromagnetism are two good examples, but perhaps the best is general relativity.  General relativity was long considered only applicable to abstruse  astrophysical phenomena, such as gravity near a black hole, but it is now an important correction for GPS receivers to produce accurate results.   This is a strong argument for research that has a clear connection to modern technology.  For IceCube and ARIANNA, whose main  purpose is to track down astrophysical cosmic-ray particle accelerators, one can argue that understanding these cosmic accelerators may teach us how to make better (plasma powered?) accelerators here on Earth.  There are many more examples of esoteric phenomena that remain just that, esoteric phenomena. 

2) Science is interesting and important for its own sake.  I believe this, and would venture to say that most scientists believe it.  Many non-scientists also believe it.  However, many do not, and, for the people who don't, I know of no good argument to make them change their mind.  This view was nicely put forth by former Fermilab director Robert Wilson, who testified before congress in 1969.  He gave the value of science as

"It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry."

When pressed about military or economic benefits (i.e. competing with the Russians), he continued:

"Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending."

This argument puts science on an equal footing with the arts,  music or poetry, endeavors that are largely supported by the public, whereas science is largely government funded.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to put these two arguments together in a way that they do not interfere with each other.     I wish that these arguments were stronger, either individually or together.     In short, I wrestle with this question a lot, and would welcome comments from scientists or nonscientists who have thought about how to answer this question.


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