Sunday, July 17, 2011

Academic Freedom and Scientific Research

As a recent chemistry graduate on my way to a Ph.D. program in the fall, I know too well about the pressures on the scientific community to conduct research whose fruits provide direct benefit to society and abandon those that seemingly do not. Among the latter are projects like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and the search for the Higgs boson and other subatomic particles using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The average layperson unversed in the nuances of scientific inquiry simply raises an eyebrow at the mention of such projects and asks, "What's the point of that?" or "Shouldn't we be building faster computers or finding a cure for cancer?"

Don't get me wrong. Faster computers and cures for cancer and other diseases would certainly improve standards of living dramatically. That is not to say, however, that "useless" projects such as SETI and the LHC would not. Society at large wants to streamline scientific research, directing interest and funding toward what is foreseeably applicable and useful. The curiosity of scientists into the fundamental heart of nature by means of basic research should be discouraged.

They forget that these scientific principles, from which we benefit by their medical and industrial applications, come from basic research. The undeniably important technological advances we have come to depend on and take for granted in modern times come from research that was once branded as "pointless" and a "waste of time."

Take, for example, the laser (which stands for light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation). When it was first developed by Gordon Gould, no one thought it would ever have any application whatsoever. Today, the laser is everywhere! Computers, CD and DVD players, certain surgical innovations such as bloodless surgery, and barcode scanners just to name a few applications all would not function without it.

Another example is James Clerk Maxwell’s investigation into the properties of light and electromagnetism in general. His four famous differential equations describing light’s behavior elegantly united electricity and magnetism, which were previously thought to be independent entities. Like Gould, Maxwell’s discovery was deemed as inconsequential or otherwise ignored, denounced as yet another useless pet project of a nerdy scientist.

Maxwell’s research has dramatically shaped modern civilization. We use radio waves and microwaves to easily transmit information across vast distances in short intervals of time. This broad application to telecommunication has irreversibly connected the far corners of the globe through radio, television, telephones, and the Internet. Radio waves are also used in radar, which the British used to defeat Nazi U-boats. Contemporary applications include air traffic control, nautical navigation, and meteorological prediction. Scientists in the early 20th century used electromagnetic radiation to probe the atom, leading to the development of quantum mechanics, a revolutionary and fascinating field with astounding applications of its own.

I close with a quote from Carl Sagan:

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[…]“X-rays”[…]Fleming wasn’t planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold; Watson and Crick weren’t imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffractometry of DNA (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark).

These scientists were simply allowed to satisfy their curiosities, pursue basic research, and publish their findings. The numerous wonderful applications followed shortly thereafter.

No comments:

Post a Comment