If you were out walking your dog and came across a man rolling a ball down an angled track while marking its progress against a water clock, you might be forgiven for thinking him a harmless eccentric with an odd hobby. But in the 17th Century that man was Galileo and he was busy laying the groundwork for much of modern physics.
In his time, the work he was doing with falling bodies and his studies of planetary motion was considered irrelevant at best and blasphemous at worst. In fact, his work was frowned upon by the church to such an extent that Galileo eventually had to deny his knowledge and retreat into house arrest so as to avoid further offending the inquisition. Yet, today his name is revered as one of the fathers of scientific inquiry. (You will be happy to hear that in the end, the church decided Galileo had a point about the earth revolving around the sun and, in 1983, formally cleared his name.)
Fortunately, the threat of torture is no longer used to quell scientific curiosity. However, public criticism and denial of funding is. I would like to make the case for encouraging science even if it appears to have no social or economic value. I make this point, not only because without Galileo our society would be far different, but because I recently came across an experiment involving spiders watching virtual reality while on a treadmill. Personally, I think the joy of imagining such a thing is, in and of itself, enough to justify the work. However, not everyone will agree. We can think of this as the modern equivalent of rolling a ball down an inclined plane. Of what possible use could it be to learn about spiders on a treadmill?
I would argue that the question of why study spiders (on a treadmill or off) is irrelevant for three reasons: The first is simply this: why not study spiders? We shouldn’t need a purpose to investigate the world around us. Why not encourage curiosity for its own sake? We are a curious species, it’s part of what makes us human.
On a more practical note my second reason for encouraging curiosity is that often studies have more importance than meets the eye. Let’s go back to the spiders. Before beginning their study, the researchers had to design and build a tiny treadmill (they used a 3D printer). Then, since getting into shape was insufficient motivation to keep the spiders on the treadmill, they had to come up with a way to restrain the animals. The spiders were briefly chilled in a refrigerator to make them passive. Then, tiny magnets were glued to them. The magnets held the spiders on the treadmill but allowed for measurable movement. The spiders were then presented with various stimuli either in reality or through virtual reality.
The goal of the study was to see if the spiders would react the same way to both types of stimuli (they did). Interesting, but so what? Actually, two things came of the study, not counting building a spider sized treadmill. The first was increased knowledge of how spiders’ vision works and that could help us understand our own eyesight. Second, the study opens up the possibility of using VR with other animal studies, potentially saving a great deal of time and money that would otherwise be spent in field work.
But what of something as ridiculous as the study of sexual behavior in screwworms flies. Okay, this sounds bad. In fact, in 1975 William Proxmire awarded it the “Golden Fleece Award” as a waste of public money. Actually, the screwworm is a parasite that was (note the past tense) decimating cattle around the world and the research done on its sexual behavior helped prevent infestations and resulted in lowering the price of meat. Proxmire eventually admitted he was wrong to target the study.
Still, these were practical studies, so we should expect practical results. What of something that is purely theoretical? This brings me to my third reason for encouraging scientific creativity. Even when there is no immediate goal in mind a theory can lead to practical use, whether intended or not.
Theory often comes before applied knowledge. For example, in the 1830’s Michael Faraday described the force we now call electromagnetism. Using this knowledge, he invented the first generator and the first electric motor. However, that wasn’t enough for his critics. When he was questioned by a politician (an ancestor of Proxmire perhaps?) as to the use of his new discoveries, his reply was “At present, I don’t know, but one day you will be able to tax them.”
Similar examples of work, once thought useless (but now taxable), abound. Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the most influential mathematician who ever lived, was playing around with shapes and invented something called Non-Euclidian Geometry, which Einstein used in his Theory of Relativity, which in turn is used today in ways too numerous to mention (do you have a cell phone? Thank Einstein). A way of staining bacteria on slides was invented by a student just “fooling around”. The cosmic microwave background was discovered by a couple of scientists trying to figure out why their equipment wasn’t working the way they expected.
Another recent example is the Large Hadron Collider, which was in the news a few years ago with the discovery of the Higgs Boson (certainly obscure research). Building the LHC was a colossal project by anyone’s standards, taking about a decade and costing nearly 5 billion dollars. It had an unexpected bonus however. In order to expedite communication between the thousands of scientists involved, a man named Tim Bernes-Lee invented something you are surely familiar with: The World Wide Web. I doubt anyone saw that one coming.
All these examples show that results of seemingly irrelevant or obscure theory and research can lead to great discoveries. Of course, not all experiments will lead to the world wide web and not all scientists are Gauss or Faraday. In fact, science can lead to dangerous results (even when well intentioned). I’m not saying anything goes. The scientific community should be criticized for irresponsible research and for waste. But not for simply doing science. We shouldn’t automatically assume something that sounds silly or irrelevant has no value.
Instead, let’s give curiosity a chance. For without a crystal ball (and we know what science thinks of that) we can’t know which theories will be important. We can’t know what research will lead to a cure for cancer or a new encryption method for on-line banking. Who knows, maybe spiders on treadmills will become the next fad and lead to an economic boom. Without investigating the unknown we will surely stagnate, both as a culture and as a species.