Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In Defense Of Basic Science

Another good article by Marcelo Gleiser on the need for "basic science" research.

Think, for example, of the development of quantum mechanics, the physics that studies the behavior of atoms and molecules. Early in the 20th century, when scientists such as Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger and Heisenberg were trying to understand the behavior of the atom, they couldn’t have imagined that their theories would revolutionize the way we think about reality and, as a bonus, the way we live. Transistors, semiconductors, lasers, the whole digital technology of modern life emerged as a consequence of their musings. And it was from atomic and nuclear physics that new forms of radiation were discovered, such as the X rays that changed the face of medicine and genetics, and the nuclear weapons that changed history. Wherever there is light there is shadow, as said the Buddha.

To think of the inapplicability of basic science in the short term creates the false notion that most theoretical speculations will never turn out to be of practical value, which is clearly not the case.

None of his argument should be new to anyone reading this blog for any considerable period of time. The amount of money that we spend on purely "basic research" is puny compared to everything else. People arguing against such funding is trying to take very little money out of a very little pot that didn't have much in the first place.

Strangely enough, many of the problems that people keep telling scientists to solve are really not scientific problem, but more of the social/economic problems. They tend to ask why we can't provide more food to such-and-such people, when the while issue often isn't the lack of food, but the inability to deliver them, or the inability for those people to farm, due to political/social unrest. Besides, these very same people need to go argue against those who are anti-science and think that science is the cause of all of our problems.


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