Why pure research?

22 - 10 - 2014


This is a reblog from Quantum Diaries!

By Andrea Signori, Nikhef researcher (Theory)

With my first post on Quantum Diaries I will not address a technical topic; instead, I would like to talk about the act (or art) of “studying” itself. In particular, why do we care about fundamental research, pure knowledge without any practical purpose or immediate application?

A. Flexner in 1939 authored a contribution to Harper’s Magazine (issue 179) named “The usefulness of useless knowledge”. He opens the discussion with an interesting question: “Is it not a curios fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds which threaten civilization itself, men and women – old and young – detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge […] ?”

Nowadays this interrogative is still present, and probably the need for a satisfactory answer is even stronger.

From a pragmatic point of view, we can argue that there are many important applications and spin-offs of theoretical investigations into the deep structure of Nature that did not arise immediately after the scientific discoveries. This is, for example, the case of QED and antimatter, the theories for which date back to the 1920s and are nowadays exploited in hospitals for imaging purposes (like in PET, positron emission tomography). The most important discoveries affecting our everyday life, from electricity to the energy bounded in the atom, came from completely pure and theoretical studies: electricity and magnetism, summarized in Maxwell’s equations, and quantum mechanics are shining examples.

Books, the source of my knowledge

Books, the source of my knowledge

It may seem that it is just a matter of time: “Wait enough, and something useful will eventually pop out of these abstract studies!” True. But that would not be the most important answer. To me this is: “Pure research is important because it generates knowledge and education”. It is our own contribution to the understanding of Nature, a short but important step in a marvelous challenge set up by the human mind.

Personally, I find that research into the yet unknown aspects of Nature responds to some partly conscious and partly unconscious desires. Intellectual achievements provide a genuine ‘spiritual’ satisfaction, peculiar to the art of studying. For sake of truth I must say that there are also a lot of dark sides: frustration, stress, graduate-depression effects, geographical and economic instability and so on. But leaving for a while all these troubles aside, I think I am pretty lucky in doing this job.

During difficult times from the economic point of view, it is legitimate to ask also “Why spend a lot of money on expensive experiments like the Large Hadron Collider?” or “Why fund abstract research in labs and universities instead of investing in more socially useful studies?”

We could answer by stressing again the fact that many of the best innovations came from the fuzziest studies. But in my mind the ultimate answer, once for all, relies in the power of generating culture, and education through its diffusion. Everything occurs within our possibilities and limitations. A willingness to learn, a passion for teaching, blackboards, books and (super)computers: these are our tools.

Citing again Flexner’s paper: “The mere fact spiritual and intellectual freedoms bring satisfaction to an individual soul bent upon its own purification and elevation is all the justification that they need. […] A poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact, all bear in themselves all the justification that universities, colleges and institutes of research need or require.”

Last but not least, it is remarkable to think about how many people from different parts of the world may have met and collaborated while questing together after knowledge. This may seem a drop in the ocean, but research daily contributes in generating a culture of peace and cooperation among people with different cultural backgrounds. And that is for sure one of the more important practical spin-offs.