A dig through the MetroCosm archives... purely for my own indulgence!
This article was first published in the Metro Newspaper in May 2013.
For this first 'Cosm revisited' I have chosen an unusually wordy article (most were infographic led with words acting as more of a supporting cast) – mainly because it is covers a subject that I still feel extremely passionate about: the value of curiosity for curiosity's sake.
Humanity is an inherently curious species. From the moment of our birth, we seek to understand ourselves; the world we inhabit and all the space beyond. Curiosity defines us. The need to ask ‘what if?’, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ liberated us from the limits of an existence driven by survival alone and allowed us to become the first species in the history of the planet to live life for life’s sake. Curiosity made us masters of our fate.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of our curiosity is science. If curiosity is raw instinct, then science is curiosity channeled, focused and refined – curiosity can survive without science, but science can’t survive without curiosity. Remove curiosity from science and you tear out the beating heart from the very thing thing that made us and sustains us.
Yet that hasn’t stopped policy-makers in Canada from attempting to do just that. Last week*, Canada’s Nation Research Council announced that they will only fund science that has a defined economic and social gain – stating that ‘scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.’ In other words: they want to remove curiosity from science.
*Author’s note: in this case ‘last week’ was actually five years ago, so this policy may well have changed.
On the face of it, that might seem to make sense – after all, during these cash-strapped times, it’s frivolous to fund money-pit projects like space telescopes when they can back something that can be packaged, marketed and sold for a profit.
Nor is this a view limited to government policy-makers. Peer into the great www dot and you won’t have to dig too deep to find commenters asking ‘why spend billions on particle colliders or space telescopes when there people dying of starvation, cancer or war?’.
Sure, if you look at great curiosity-driven science projects superficially, it might be difficult to see how they might benefit humanity beyond the ‘frivolous’ quest for understanding – after all, how can £2billion spent trying to better view of a distant galaxy possibly have any effect on your daily life?
But the fact is, most of our modern world is built on the foundations of science driven only by ‘what if?’, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’.
When James Clerk Maxwell performed his experiments with electricity and magnetism in the late 19th century, he wasn’t aiming for something as base as personal profit or even anything as lofty as benefitting society. Yet his electromagnetic tinkerings now form foundations of our entire economy and society. Everything from computers, the internet, satellites, mobile phones and televisions to life-support machines, medical scanners and machines that go ‘ping’ owe their existence to science for curiosity’s sake.
A century ago, when William Bragg investigated the strange patterns created by X-rays as they scattered from crystalline substances, he didn’t do it with the aim of creating a technique (X-ray crystallography) that would reveal the structure of DNA and revolutionise the fields of medicine, chemistry, physics and engineering – he did it out of curiosity and the desire to reveal something new about the way the world works.
A more recent example is the discovery of graphene. Graphene is a material made of a single layer of carbon atoms that is 200 times stronger than steel and able conduct electricity like nothing else. It is expected to replace silicon in microprocessors (which is nearing its limits) and should make it possible to build computers a hundred times faster than today’s. Batteries made of graphene will charge hundreds of times faster than conventional batteries – meaning an iPhone could charge in 30 seconds and an electric car with a flat battery could be ready to drive away in minutes. But graphene wasn’t discovered by scientists looking to revolutionise electronics, but by two Russian guys at Manchester University, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, playing around with Sellotape and a block of graphite – just to see how thin they could get it.
Examples like Maxwell, Bragg, Geim and Novoselev are legion, but what would happen if Maxwell, for example, was to approach a research council today and asked for funding to ‘just’ see how something works? Well, if Canada is any sort of example, he might very well be turned down.
But does this law of unanticipated returns apply to all the sciences?
Much has been written about the spin-offs from large-scale physics research, so we thought we’d explore that other Cosm mainstay – astronomy. While it’s quite easy to see how something like physics can have a long-term impact on our society, it’s perhaps more difficult to see how astronomy could have much of an effect to those of shackled to surface of the Earth. Sure, it’s hard to argue that discoveries of supermassive black holes and radiation-spewing neutron stars have much effect on Mr Ralph von-Average, but in order make those discoveries, astronomers often have to invent new instruments and techniques that produce spinoff technologies that can (and do) have more tangible applications.
And let’s not overlook the power that big science projects can have to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to want to become the next generation. If we side-line curiosity and turn science into a just-for-profit enterprise, we will breed a generation of nine-to-five technicians and lose the Maxwells, Einsteins and Diracs who harness curiosity and create scientific revolutions.
My MetroCosm science column ran in the Metro Newspaper from 2005, until it's premature demise in 2014.