Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Big Bang Implosion of Physics

This is a terrific essay that expresses what I've been saying all along on why research on basic physics is important enough not to be abandoned.

In truth, fundamental research is a necessity, not a luxury. Most of the technological developments made in the past 100 years have been fuelled by fundamental research into science. Albert Einstein famously dismissed Enrico Fermi’s idea that massive amounts of energy could be released by splitting the atom. The unintended consequences of the theory of relativity gave us nuclear power. Similarly, from the esoteric beauty of the theory of quantum mechanics has emerged electronics, computing and laser optics, to name but a few developments.

We cannot foretell where research into the fundamental constituents of matter will take us, but to not travel down that path is to shut the door on the future. Our ability to understand and control nature is what gives us the capacity to carve out a different future not constrained by the fetters of the immediate problems of finite resources. It is our lack of vision and our preoccupation with the limitations of our society that holds us back from venturing further.

As physicists, we need to carefully list out ALL of the "applications" that came out of what was originally thought to be nothing more than "pure knowledge". This, to me, is the most effective means of countering the notion that pursuing basic knowledge for knowledge itself has no direct, beneficial outcome to human civilization. We should no longer talk about "spin offs" of science projects. We have to go right down to the nitty-gritty and use concrete example. That's the only way the general public and the politician can understand.


1 comment:

Peter Morgan said...

But, I think it's important to be open about all the unintended and unexpected consequences of science. It's so obviously not all roses to have scientific and technological development all the time, with nuclear bombs, nuclear waste, chemical waste (for which as Physicists we should read material science waste, from semiconductor plants), also on the list of consequences, along with the apparently good consequences.

Society has emphatically not closed its eyes to this aspect of science, so that scientists seem completely out of touch if they do not take some responsibility. Of course scientists do not choose how technologists and industrialists will use scientific knowledge, but they are a part of the pattern of cause and responsibility. For myself, even as a Physicist, every time a scientist mentions how great the applications of science are without mentioning with equal weight a commitment to understanding the wider consequences of the science we have already applied increases my resistance to spending money on new science. Not accepting and taking responsibility is politically suicidal in the long run.