a harsh but very, very necessary thing to say

August 6, 2012

Over at Cracked.com, internet comedian Luke McKinney made a list of the world’s worst and most misanthropy-inducing reactions to the experiment showing the very probable existence of the Higgs boson and decided to swiftly tackle the unfortunately popular befuddlement over why we need to know whether the boson exists or not. His description of the mindset it takes to discard putting in the effort and money into research and discovery may not grace any stump speeches on any campaign trails but if someone you know has ever asked you “why are we spending all this money to figure out how [complex scientific concept] works?” or “why waste money on this [scientific experiment or mission] if it won’t give me a new job?” and you’d like him or her to know exactly how this sounds to someone familiar with how science works, this is the quote you should really show the shruggie in question…

When people ask, “What’s the point in understanding everything?” they’ve just disqualified themselves from using questions and should disappear in a puff of paradox. But they don’t understand and just continue existing, which are also their only two strategies for life. These are the apes who sat in the back of the cave, scratching themselves while ooking about how bashing rocks together was a total waste of time. Except back then they had a better excuse for their sloping foreheads and scratching themselves in public.

Previous investigations of apparently pointless physical phenomena led to little things like electricity, quantum mechanics, absolutely everything, the entire modern world. Stuff like that. The most important breakthrough in the last thousand years came from shining invisible light on a piece of metal to watch more invisible bits come out. If scientists hadn’t followed up on this odd little detail (aka the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, the most badass-sounding revolution in scientific understanding), the absolute limit of modern technology would be brass and steam. And we’d have Cavepunks wearing fake animal skins, posting lithographs of themselves holding giant fake clubs that don’t actually work for hitting things.

As hard as it may be to believe, the universe is not here to make sure you have a job every two or three years when you need a change of scenery, or to help scientists boost your paycheck within two to four weeks of a new discovery. It doesn’t even care if you exist, how much you make, or whether your car has the leatherette seats you wanted or if you had to settle for microfiber. Therefore, when scientists try to pry open the fabric of space and time to understand how it works and what they can do with their newfound knowledge, or discover the building blocks of life itself, you can bet that their result isn’t going to immediately translate into a new job for you. Even the invention of the internet, one of the biggest boosts that international economies have ever had, took a long, winding, 30-plus year road to being monetized. You may not reap the benefits of today’s cutting edge research, but your children and their children very well might. And are you really so cheap that you can’t afford a penny or two from your paycheck to invest in the future of your offspring? Think carefully before you answer.

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  • Paul451

    Greg, your links have been all gorped in the last two posts. I’m assuming some auto-converter buried in the new theme.

  • Greg Fish

    Nope, no auto-converter. It’s just what happens when you don’t format the quotes in your HTML to proper plain text. In other words, sorry, my bad, thanks for the catch.

  • Professor Layman

    Love it. This is the kinda perfectly succinct put-down/explanation that I didn’t even know I was looking for, until I read it. It’s full of that same frustration that wells up, just being asked such a close minded question. It’s funny that the more immersed you get into opening your mind to the possibilites of the universe, the more closed off you get from the very (common) idea, that any of the effort to understand it might not be worth while at all. That sudden clash of perspectives has seen me going from explaining the intricate wonders of solar fusion, quantum mechanics or the proportions of an atom, to being utterly lost for any words at all. I know they’re wrong, but let’s see, “How can I put this…?”

    Among the jokes, Cracked’s a treasure trove for this kinda brutally sensible and quite wonderful logic. Thanks for sharing G, and (a belated) welcome back to blogging, I have to say it’s been a real pleasure to have Weird Things back in action.