can you calculate the worth of curiosity?
What’s science worth to you? Not in a moral or utilitarian sense, but in cold, hard cash. How much should we spend on finding the Higgs boson? At what point do we stop allocating money for fusion research? Should a scientific patron stop renewing grants on a seemingly promising but slow moving project after three years, or when it reaches a total budget of $1.7 million? There aren’t easy questions to answer since research will very often lead you down paths you may not expect. The slow moving project in question could’ve yielded a cure for pancreatic cancer, or an interstellar warp drive if you just let it keep going for a few years or gave it another few million dollars.
Really, what’s a few more million or two more years in light of the achievement made? Yet, on the flip side, it could’ve been a dead end that yielded nothing and wasted millions better spent elsewhere. But while we don’t really know how much a scientific project should cost or how long it should continue, since we have to fund them, we need to ask these very broad and difficult questions, often to an increasingly uncaring audience which wants results, hard numbers, and quick answers where there aren’t really any to give.
When Phil Plait pitches a firefighting spinoff of a rocket engine as a reason to fund NASA, and cosmologist Sean Carroll asks readers to come up with a practical application for a Higgs boson, it’s hard to follow their logic since one could always argue about how else the money could be spent or why it hasn’t been used for a practical venture instead of curiosity-based science. Our modern world revolves around applications of ideas that were once the stuff of curious speculation with little practical use to everyday life and without them, there’d be no vaccines, antibiotics, genomics, electronics, aircraft, or spacecraft.
It took us many decades to realize a myriad of practical ways we could use them and we’re still mining ideas from decades ago to help test a new insight or two. Were you to put Einstein, Galileo, Newton, Dalton, or Darwin on the clock and tell them that they better finish their research in five years and have a working prototype for a practical use of their research able to generate at least so many dollars in revenue, you may well have destroyed all of modern medicine, energy, communications, and space exploration. Instead of just exploring and asking questions, they would now have to labor to invent something that makes a profit instead, drastically limiting the scope of their work.
Science is like a kid. You need to give it time to just play, roam free, and see what it can learn rather than put a leash on it and teach it how to do what you want, when you want, and how you want it done. It may not turn out exactly the way you wanted but it will be richer for the experience and can use its mistakes and failures to help it better cope with the uncertain future and make the most of its achievements. I understand why Phil, Sean, or any other science advocate wants to look for concrete examples of how science can be turned into profit or an applicable technology for those who ask why we spend money on things they don’t understand.
But they’re not dealing with a gap in perception that can be fixed with enough anecdotes or brainstorming sessions. They’re dealing with a cultural problem and with short-sightedness from the people whose mantras in life are “what’s in it for me?” and “why should I care?” No amount of rocket engine inspired water jets or phenomenal physics under the hood of future generations of electronics are going to help because the people in question will see a GPS device and refuse to make the connections between Enlightenment astronomy, science fiction novels which first described satellites, general relativity, the mathematics of Babbage and Lovelace, blue-sky military projects, the investments in NASA, and the tool now giving them real-time directions in another city.
And this is a much bigger problem than just trying to find enough examples of how science resulted in a huge and paradigm shifting application because we have no shortage of those. Just look at everything after the end of the Dark Ages and the accelerating pace of progress since then as we build on more and more data about the world around us, and start connecting the dots. But one needs to have a willingness to try and make these connections and look beyond the “me, me, me” culture of penny pinchers who either want a gadget now or no work to be done at all lest we dare waste a penny on science for which we may not have a practical use at this very second.
We need to foster a curiosity about the world and appreciation of knowledge just for the sake of knowledge, nurture that instinct of diving in to find out what a new term or idea means and why it comes up. If we can inspire a society to be curious and actually give a damn about its future, maybe, just maybe, we won’t have to deal with the constant questioning of why scientists are getting money to solve problems for which the person doing the questioning sees no immediate personal benefit. And maybe we’ll even improve the basics of our economy, our infrastructure, and see a post-Cold War burst of daring productivity and innovation…