Why do it?

I got an email from superfan Caden this morning, asking if I’d read the latest Dennis Overbye column on the premature announcement of earth-like planets from the Kepler Mission. The background, if you missed it, is that one of the project scientists, Dimitar Sasselov, gave a talk at Ted in which he showed a slide and referred to approximately 140 earth-like planets that had thus far been discovered by Kepler.

He mispoke, but in many ways, it was a forgivable error. Yes, the planets are merely candidates, though for my part, I have little doubt that the approximate distribution of masses will prove to be correct. Yes, the planets are earth-mass, not earth-like (since at this point in the survey discovered planets will be too close to their host stars to support liquid water), but this is not any less remarkable. And, of course, his announcement was premature, but this is where I find Overbye’s criticism laughable.

Experimental and observational results are usually confirmed or disappear pretty quickly, which means that somebody announcing a 2-sigma planetary, Dark Matter, or Higgs detection should be prepared to eat their words in short order. But the importance of those discoveries is also what makes them news, and it is the responsibility of science reporters to temper the potential import of the discoveries with the possibility that they may not pan out. It is remarkable that Overbye can be so cavalierly critical of jumping the gun on reporting experimental results, while at the same time so casually report every left-field theory put forth, regardless of how few (if any) of them ever pan out.

But Caden wrote to me not about science by press-release — about which I’ve babbled on many times — but rather about a quote near the end of the piece:

I can’t say what the discovery of dark matter or the final hunting down of the Higgs boson would do for the average person, except to paraphrase Michael Faraday, the 19th-century English chemist who discovered the basic laws of electromagnetism. When asked the same question about electricity, he said that someday it would be taxable.

This got her thinking:

I had an interesting conversation on my last trip abroad regarding how to explain why we do what we do, as scientists. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked, “So why should we care about neutrinos?”… How do you explain why basic science research matters?

This is a very good question, and one that we often lose sight of. We often justify basic science to the public (as Faraday did) on the pretext that someday it will lead to technology, and thus to revenue. And there is a truth to that. Quantum mechanics is vital to our electronics. General relativity (as Overbye points out) is crucial to GPS systems. Special relativity is central to all nuclear reactions.

But that’s not why we do it.

Technology is a laudable goal, which is why we have entire colleges of engineering. It’s also why I feel quite at home in a college of arts and sciences. We want to understand why the universe is the way it is, how it will change over time, and how everything fits together. You want to understand neutrinos because there are more of them out there than any other particle in the universe, and it would be ridiculously provincial to ignore that fact. It may seem old-fashioned, but I see what we do as being akin to the work done by philosophers, artists, and writers. Our goal is to try to put some order into the universe. With that comes the responsibility to tell the public about what we’ve learned, and most importantly to try to convey what we really know, rather than try to dazzle with the absurdly speculative.

There may come a time that basic science (and the arts) are seen as some as a luxury, and that the only research worth doing is applied science. To some, that day may already be here. I think this is a foolish position since you never know what basic science will ultimately tell us. But my basic point is that even if all we get out of a particular endeavor is knowledge, that’s more than enough.


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One Response to Why do it?

  1. Caden says:

    Thanks for the response, Dave. And the designation “superfan!”

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