To Break the Rules, First Learn the Rules

Science Illustrated - - EDITORIAL - An­thony Ford­ham aford­ham@next­

You might ask: why bother try­ing to fig­ure out if there’s a multiverse? What’s the point? How can the knowl­edge there are other uni­verses sort-of­but-not-re­ally-but-sort-of out­side our uni­verse, ever be use­ful? Why spend the money on this?

And the an­swer is: be­cause we don’t know. Re­search into ap­par­ent es­o­ter­ica like way-out cos­mol­ogy and brane the­ory and su­per­strings, are all in the do­main of what we call “pure sci­ence”. It’s knowl­edge for the sake of knowl­edge.

Maybe it’s just part of the hu­man con­di­tion. Way back in March 1923, Bri­tish moun­taineer Ge­orge Mal­lory fa­mously cut right to the core of the mat­ter. When asked by the New York Times, why he wanted to climb Mount Ever­est, he fa­mously replied: “Be­cause it’s there.”

Of course, he later dis­ap­peared on that moun­tain, and may not even have re­ally said this (1920s news­pa­pers be­ing some­what lib­eral with po­etic li­cense), but the quote lives on.

To­day, Ever­est is a way to prove to your­self that you have what it takes to climb the world’s tallest moun­tain (with hun­dreds of other peo­ple at the same time).

Sim­i­larly, pure sci­ence is a way to prove to our­selves that we can know what might oth­er­wise seem un­know­able. Why is there a huge cold spot in the uni­verse? Why do we need to know what caused it? Be­cause it’s there.

In any case, pur­suit of pure sci­ence is of­ten es­sen­tial for the real break­throughs in tech­nol­ogy and knowl­edge, that trickle down to im­prove the lives of we mere mor­tals. Elec­tric­ity was a cu­rios­ity for cen­turies, un­til var­i­ous so­ci­eties got rich enough to be able to in­dulge some weirdo’s ob­ses­sion with fid­dling with the stuff 24/7. Steam power was sim­i­larly con­sid­ered only good for toys or for demon­strat­ing nat­u­ral prin­ci­ples, un­til a bunch of hu­mans all got bees in their bon­net about how this stuff must be more use­ful than that, it just has to be.

Right now, a lot of high-en­ergy physics and cos­mol­ogy, is still at the stage of “we’re pretty sure this is im­por­tant, prob­a­bly”.

If you’re out­raged that the world is spend­ing bil­lions on build­ing an ex­per­i­men­tal fu­sion re­ac­tor that won’t even pro­duce more elec­tric­ity than a nor­mal power sta­tion, then pause.

It’s es­sen­tially the same kind of out­rage as that di­rected at Jerón­imo de Ayanz y Beau­mont, when he was awarded patents for his steam­pow­ered wa­ter pump and 49 other steamy in­ven­tions in 1606, none of which did any work that couldn’t be more re­li­ably car­ried out by per­fectly good slaves. On the other hand, there were those who were out­raged that Isaac New­ton wasted so much time on alchemy and mys­ti­cism, and they def­i­nitely had a point. Some “re­search” is in­deed a waste of time and money, and try­ing to fig­ure out which re­search is worth di­vert­ing re­sources away from peo­ple who are starving to­day, in hopes it may one day who knows how far in the fu­ture, abol­ish the con­cept of star­va­tion al­to­gether, is hard.

But with­out the break­throughs and the dis­cov­ery of things we didn’t know we didn’t know, our civil­i­sa­tion doesn’t re­ally progress. It just goes round and round in our var­i­ous cy­cles of boom and bust, war and peace, en­light­en­ment and ig­no­rance.

The uni­verse seems to run ac­cord­ing to rules, but ev­ery now and then some kind of catas­tro­phe causes real change. Un­til now, those “catas­tro­phes” have been bad: an as­ter­oid strike here, a su­per­vol­cano there, a plague, what­ever.

Pure sci­ence lets us learn the rules in in­creas­ingly fine de­tail. And when we know the rules, we can use them - or even break them - to our ad­van­tage.

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