Posted by: Kash Farooq | January 18, 2012

The Value of Curiosity Driven Research

On Episode 117 of the Pod Delusion there was a report suggesting that pure physics research at places like CERN does not make economic sense. Money could be spent elsewhere. Why spend money on particle physics when it could be spent on something more worthy like curing cancer? What is the point of searching for the Higgs Boson anyway? And what on Earth are we going to do with one if we find one?

Obviously, I very strongly disagreed with this report.

I’ve already blogged about the numerous logical fallacies I found in that report, so I won’t go over those points again. Instead, I’ll start my counter argument by stating this:

It does not matter if the LHC finds nothing.

And it does not matter if we can’t use a quark to make our cars go faster.

It really doesn’t.

If the LHC does find the Higgs Boson, it doesn’t matter if we can’t make better toasters with it.

Let me explain.

Scientists, in any field, typically research stuff that they are interested in. And they are passionate about that research. It’s what drives them to do long hours for rubbish pay. And if the technology to reach their goals doesn’t exist, they invent it. They create it. They develop it.

Now, it may turn out that their research goals have practical applications. It may not. But, perhaps more importantly, it may turn out that the technology and methods developed towards their goals can be used elsewhere. You just don’t know. Unexpected applications, by their very definition, are unexpected. And it does not matter if the goal is achieved or not. I need to stress the importance of this point. It really doesn’t matter if the goal isn’t achieved – the technology has still been invented. And the pure scientific knowledge has still been gained.

When I interviewed the 2011 Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt (episode 107 of  The Pod Delusion – there is also a transcript of the interview on this blog), he gave a fantastic example. An astronomer called John O’Sullivan was studying Black Holes. He was looking for Hawking Radiation – the mechanism by which Black Holes are hypothesised to evaporate.

Sounds stupid and pointless doesn’t it? What a complete waste of money! What possible use would that be?

Well, the techniques invented by that astronomer are now used all over the world. That device probably somewhere near you right now uses his invention. John O’Sullivan really wanted to find Hawking Radiation. He didn’t. But, along the way, he invented WiFi. And that patent has made millions. It really didn’t matter that he didn’t find Hawking Radiation and give Stephen Hawking his Nobel Prize in Physics. Actually, perhaps Stephen Hawking wouldn’t agree with me on that point…

What about an example from mathematics? A few decades ago, mathematicians were studying huge prime numbers. Another seemingly pointless activity. Now that research protects our bank transactions on the Internet. Another example of an unexpected application.

OK, that’s maths and astrophysics. But what about particle physics? The original criticism was about high energy particle physics, so I’d better give some examples from this area. And I’m not going to give the standard “The World Wide Web was invented at CERN” example.

A quick Google search reveals that there are 26,000 particle accelerators in the world today. Only 1% of these are physics research “toys”. The biggest use for accelerators is in medicine. For example, beams of accelerated nuclei are used in the treatment of cancer. This is called Proton Therapy. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite happy for this technology to be researched and perfected by scientists at places like CERN and Fermilab.

There are also spin off applications for particle detector technology. PET (Positron emission tomography) and MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) scanners can now be found in hospitals all over the world. Both very useful inventions. Well, CERN scientists played an important role in the development of PET scanners, building prototypes with the hospital in Geneva. And that wasn’t a one off, it’s still happening today. With their newly discovered knowledge of particles, magnets and semiconductors, technology developed specifically for particle accelerators at CERN is currently being used to develop combined PET/MRI scanners. Yes, apparently, CERN scientists actually know how magnets work.

By the way, the ‘P’ in PET stands for positron. An anti-electron. Who would have predicted that antimatter particles would have a medical use? I’m pretty sure that Paul Dirac, the physicist who predicted the existence of antimatter in the 1920s, wasn’t thinking about medical equipment. He was just doing pure particle physics research. Nearly a century later, what sort of economic value can we now attach to this research?

In his book Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains how curiosity-driven research has led to huge civilisation advances:

Maxwell wasn’t thinking of radio, radar and television when he first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism; Newton wasn’t dreaming of space flight or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon; Roentgen wasn’t contemplating medical diagnosis when he investigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it  ‘X-rays’; Curie wasn’t thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende; Fleming wasn’t planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mould; Watson and Crick weren’t imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffractometry of  DNA; Rowland and Molina weren’t planning to implicate CFCs in ozone depletion when they began studying the role of halogens in stratospheric photochemistry.

From these examples and more we know that the discovery of unexpected practical applications of scientific exploration does happen. It would be highly presumptuous and, in fact, an argument from ignorance to say that this time nothing practical is ever likely to come of it, just because such an application lies outside the bounds of our imagination.

And even if discovering the structure of matter doesn’t payoff, the technology developed for the LHC to allow physicists to understand the structure of matter has already started to pay off. The number of spin-offs continue to grow. For example, superconducting magnets and cables developed specifically for high energy physics at the LHC are now being developed commercially for power transmission. This will offer huge gains in energy efficiency and make the world a greener place.

I’m going to wrap up by mentioning the inspiration and wonder that has been provided by the LHC. The LHC is this generation’s Apollo programme. It’s that important. It’s that inspirational.  The story of the LHC has captured the imagination of the public, even if the majority don’t know exactly what it is doing! Something about it keeps it in the news.

And hopefully it will inspire school kids today to become the next generation of scientists who want to take part in discovering the fundamental laws of the Universe, or perhaps, they’ll go on to cure cancer.


I recorded this as a report for episode 118 of the Pod Delusion.

Special thanks to Peter Silk for help with this report. Some of the phrases used above are form his emails and Instant Messages to me!

And also a thank you to George Hrab for beautifully reading out the Carl Sagan quote for the report.


Related posts

Hunting for Logical Fallacies in a Pod Delusion report.

The “Economic False Dilemma” logical fallacy.

“I don’t think that any practical use has come of any particle physics discoveries made in the last 50 years” and corresponding Reddit discussion.

 


Responses

  1. Unfortunately, the same passion that leads scientist to work long hours for rubbish pay has created a very exploitative system. We lure people into graduate school with the promise that (one day) the young researcher can follows his own curiosity. Then, just as the researcher is really hitting his/her groove and getting a feel for research, they end up out of the field all together.

    The threats to science aren’t “that it doesn’t make economic sense” or anything else- its that the structure of science is terribly exploitative.

  2. […] this give a skewed picture of the relative importance of journals? It’s true that curiousity-driven research leads to specialization so narrow that only a few journals would be interested in any particular […]

  3. I just want to chime in and say the reason I stumbled on your blog was because I am writing a little something about curiosity for my own site.

    And I have to say – I agree.

    Curiosity is what makes us move forward. Curiousness allows us to imagine that the unimaginable maybe possible. Wondering what’s behind the door has opened many doors for the sake of the human race.

    Maybe I can do a little emailed interview on the subject of curiosity?

    My site is new – http://madelinehere.info/category/things-to-think-and-talk-about/mr-rodgers-still-teaching-us-about-the-value-of-curiousity/

    Hope this finds you very well!

    I’m @MadelineHere
    Madeline Gutierrez
    http://180DegreesStudio


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