October 22, 2013

ELIOT: In Defense of Continued Exploration

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I promised myself when I became an opinion columnist that I would write at least one column with some substance to it before my tenure as a writer was up (this is not actually true, but first sentences are hard, and lying in my own opinion column is actually pretty easy). For a long time, though, I really did not have much substance to write about — then I overheard (read: eavesdropped on) something pretty disturbing. Last week, a Cornell student I don’t know said to their friend, “I don’t understand why quantum physicists get funding for research — nothing they do ever amounts to anything tangible. Don’t we know enough already?”


Don’t we know enough already?

I don’t think the student was implying that we already know enough about quantum physics or that we already know everything. In the grand scheme of things, we know very little, and the student who made the comment probably knows even less. What I think he was getting at is that, in his mind, esoteric and curiosity-driven science offers little utility in solving the world’s very real problems. To him, things like quantum physics and space exploration are simply black-holes for scientific funding. (The beautiful irony here is that the black-hole metaphor wouldn’t even exist if it were not for discoveries made in curiosity-driven science by Stephen Hawking.) The student would argue that discoveries made in the realm of exploratory science will just become peer-reviewed papers for Nature or some other scientific publication and be read only by academics or that annoying kid who always has a multi-part question for the professor at the end of lecture.

I would make the opposite argument though: It is impossible for us to know enough about anything. Ever. We don’t know what we don’t know.

While it may be hard to see the value of something like Cornell’s synchrotron lab — something so obscure and arcane — it is important to keep in mind, that a seemingly useless discovery may only be lacking the context to make it profoundly useful. Why should Cornell spend so much money on this lab when we can’t even see what its discoveries yield? The argument that “we know enough” could have been made at any number of points throughout history. Why should we care about space? We live on earth and all of our problems are here on earth, too. But, without space exploration and satellites you wouldn’t have the internet or your cell phone or those embarrassing moments when you think you see a shooting star but it’s actually just the government spying on you. Without Michael Faraday and his work in electromagnetism, you would be checking Twitter by candlelight.

If you watch as many TED talks as me (you shouldn’t; it’s unhealthy) then you may have come across a great one given by an English physicist named Brian Cox called, “Why we need the explorers.” In this talk, Cox, who works with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, makes basically the same argument I’m making here — that exploratory science paves the road for innovation, and investments in curiosity-driven science pay for themselves in the long term. He does it much better than me and in a charming English accent; I do it in Helvetica and then The Sun then changes it to some serif font like Times New Roman (editor’s note: it’s Garamond). Cox mentions the US Space Program and a study done in 1975 by Chase Econometrics. The study showed that fourteen dollars came back into the US economy for every one dollar that was spent on Apollo 14 … of which there were many. No, the Apollo program did not create any tangible products that could be sold for a price, but rather it paid for itself by inspiring young scientists and engineers to go out and make discoveries and inventions of their own. (Side note: I don’t exactly how they calculated this — I’m not an econometrist.)

English chemist Humphry Davy once said, “Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose that our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.” Esoteric discoveries can have large implications for the world, and it is important that now, as the world becomes increasingly jaded and disinterested with anything that doesn’t show its value immediately, exploratory science continues. At a place like Cornell, where so many brilliant minds can come together, it is paramount to see the importance of furthering human knowledge. A school like Cornell can be a petri dish for scientific curiosity (pun intended), and Cornell students can be the ones who go out and conquer those new worlds. Just as an esoteric discovery like hydrogen spectroscopy can eventually lead to transistors and basically all modern electronics, some curious Cornell student who knows that he or she doesn’t know enough could make a discovery that eventually solves the world’s very really problems.