Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Study This Stuff?: An Example

Last week at a church social activity my wife and I were sitting with some friends - highly educated people - and the discussion turned to my profession.  I explained what it is that I do and then came the question that always comes after I explain that I'm trying to understand dynamo action in sun-like stars, "so why does the government give you money to do that?"  I tried to explain that there are economic benefits to funding basic research and then moved the conversation to something else.  Today, however, I was reading about proposals to cut funding of the NSF is some of the latest debt-reduction proposals and I again thought of that conversation.  Then I thought about some work that a good friend is doing trying to build compact, low-cost, reliable ways to diagnose exactly what strain of viral infection someone has, and I came up with an alternate idea.  So I'm going to try it out on you guys.

Here it is:  we should fund basic science because Issac Newton playing with prisms in the 1660's has led to knowledge that prevents cancer, allows you to microwave your food, and protects us from terrorists.  Here's why.

In 1666 Issac Newton built a device that could take in sunlight, run it through a prism, and conclusively show that white light was made of all colors combined - what he termed "spectrum".  The process of separating light into it's constituent colors or wavelengths can be done via diffraction.  At the time there was absolutely no practical application to this.

Nobody was able to do much with it until 140 years later when two British guys were able to show that the sun emitted limit that wasn't visible to human eyes - including UV light.  In the 1950's two guys used an understanding of how light diffracts to show that DNA is what encodes the instructions for how the cells in your body operate.  There was no practical application for that at the time.  In the 1970's scientists came to understand that UV light can damage DNA, which can lead to skin cancer.  Now when you go out on a sunny day, you put on sunscreen to prevent sunburns and skin cancer.  Why?  Because Newton played with a prism in 1666.

After the discovery of UV light the next big thing anybody did with Newton's idea was to make the device for producing spectrum better.  Pretty soon a guy named Joseph Fraunhofer in 1814 was taking much more accurate and detailed spectra of the sun.  In this he noticed a bunch of dark lines - colors that were missing from the rainbow of light.  There was no practical application for that discovery, but it seemed pretty cool.  Before long people were taking spectra of other things and they noticed that different materials produced different dark lines.  Eventually a guy named Kirchhoff figured out that you could use spectra to figure out what something was made of and that certain materials absorbed the light of certain colors or wavelengths.  There was no practical application for this either, but it was still pretty cool.  Then in 1945 another guy name Percy Spencer was working on radar for the military when he noticed that if he pointed the radar at a candy bar from his lunch it melted.  Pretty soon he had figured out that water was really good at absorbing light at a certain frequency.  He built a box with a radar transmitter pointed into it and found out that you could use it to heat food. Thus was the microwave oven was born.  I ate popcorn on Sunday because Issac Newton played with light in the 1660's.

 By the 1920's spectroscopy or the study if light by breaking it into it's constituent colors was big time science.  In 1928 an Indian guy name C. V. Raman figured out that molecules interact with light in a special way.  Molecules have things called phonons running around in them and phonons have energy.  If one is very careful it's possible to measure the energy of those phonons by measuring very slight shifts in the color of light bouncing off of a molecule.  There was no practical application for this at the time, but since it was cool scientists kept studying it.  As people got better and better at it, they started to be able to use Raman scattering to identify certain molecules based on their phonons.  Today it's possible to easily identify all sorts of molecules - including bad ones.  Have you ever been going through airport security and been put through one of those machines that you walk into and it blasts you with puffs of air?  What it's doing is blowing molecules off of you and then running them through a device that uses Raman scattering (or another form of spectroscopy) to look for certain molecules - like explosives or drugs.  Terrorists did not blow up any planes today because Issac Newton played with light in the 1660's.

Why do we as a nation pay people like me to study how sun-like stars use convection, rotation, and stratification to build organized magnetic fields?  Because we might figure something out that has no practical application, but somebody might think it's cool and so they'll play with it some more.  Then they might figure out something with no practical application, but somebody else will think it's cool.  Then that person might stumble onto something that saves lives, dinners, and/or planes.


  1. Fantastic, fantastic post. Here's another take, from my favorite philosopher and scientist C.S. Peirce: "Kepler's discovery rendered Newton possible, and Newton rendered modern physics possible, with the steam engine, electricity, and all the other sources of the stupendous fortunes of our age. But Kepler's discovery would not have been possible without the doctrine of conics. Now contemporaries of Kepler--such penetrating minds as Descartes and Pascal--were abandoning the study of geometry because they said it was so UTTERLY USELESS. There was the future of the human race almost trembling in the balance; for had not the geometry of conic sections already been worked out in large measure, and had their opinion that only sciences apparently useful ought to be pursued prevailed, the nineteenth century would have had none of those characters which distinguish it from the ancien regime. True science is distinctively the study of useless things. For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds."

  2. Nick, you did *really* good with this post. Next time someone asks me this type of question I will just email them this link. :)

  3. Great post Nick. You're certainly preaching to the choir.

    I think funding and supporting basic scientific research is as important as funding gas dynamics in aerospace applications.

  4. jmb275,
    That is high praise indeed for basic science. :)

  5. Nick,

    You demonstrated that beliefs and sciences do not mix; neither does belief and politic. But belief is powerful force of ignorance and can not easily defeated or defended against.

    It is not important which particular brand of belief you subscribe to, because, beliefs are not subject to question, test, measure etc.

  6. "You demonstrated that beliefs and sciences do not mix; neither does belief and politic."

    That's an interesting reaction because Newton himself was extremely religious. And I'm not sure where I said anything about belief really at all.

  7. Nick,

    I am not advocating not having belief; I am simply saying that we can not mix them. Your church folks more than likely very nice people, but they do not want to accept that science does anything good. Why? Because, there is always news about bad sciences, and, bad quotation of beliefs held by scientists.

    As far as what I have read of Newton, he never mixed his belief in doing his science; however, he did wonder about the science and knowledge he discovered using his beliefs. We do that also.

    Look at the argument on global warming... I have heard many sci-eng and technology fellows begin with their belief. It would be much easier if they began with what they know, and why they opine so. But it never will be.

    As I am freezing my butt of so early in the winter, I would really like some warming, and, I start having doubts on global nonsense, yet, somehow, I think that this much of fossil fuel use got to have consequences that I do not understand. So, I "believe" in global warming!

  8. Ancient,

    Somehow, I don't think the question, "Why would anyone pay someone to study x?" where x is some recondite piece of basic science, is more likely to be asked by a church-goer than by a non-church-goer. (Except insofar as church-goers are, on average, less educated.)

    The vast run of people want practical, useful things. If they don't see an immediate application for some research, then they do not understand (a) why anyone would want to do the research in the first place and (b) why anyone would want to pay for the research.

    One interesting question hasn't been raised yet. Nick justifies basic research by arguing that you just never know whether or how basic research will end up having an important practical application. This is a great argument. However, it concedes something important to the skeptic about basic research. It concedes that research is ultimately only worth doing if it has a practical payoff. Is that conceding too much? Could we justify basic research if it never had any practical applications or if the probability of finding practical applications were really, really small?

  9. JL,

    I would not say that church going people are less educated, or label them. I have a different interpretation: science, and knowledge in general, challenges the dogma of the day, and hence any organization based on “beliefs” and “commands” will resist. It is Darwinian.

    At much more fundamental level, we do science because it is in our psyche, genes. We acquire knowledge because it is there, and we have survived because of superior knowledge over others in the surroundings. We increase the fear in less endowed with knowledge, and, we with knowledge, also fall into dogmatic thinking of our times.

    I have one additional observation: ignorance marches on at much faster pace than knowledge.

    Solution? Get country rich! No more food fight!

  10. Fantastic defense of scientific inquiry. I support "useless" studies just for the sheer delight of learning, but you have composed an eloquent argument to help convince those who don't share my values that such studies are practical as well.

    Thanks for this!


To add a link to text:
<a href="URL">Text</a>