Monday, March 25, 2013

Why pursue science?

This post has taken me awhile to put together, as the question posed is very very deep and would take many blog posts to answer with the level of coverage I would like.  Yet, I feel compelled to answer it here, if even in a brief manner as I think it is a very important issue to address.  Plus, I promised in my previous post that I would talk about the importance of discovering the Higgs boson ;)

So, why do we care about the Higgs boson?  Or for that matter, why do we care about the pursuit of any number of other questions in science, such as the formation of planets, the evolution of our species, or any number of other topics?

One answer, which is what gets scientists out of bed every day, is "because we *have* to know".  Humans are innately curious and we have a compulsion to discover and understand the world in which we live.  This is more true of scientists, philosophers, and the like and is not necessarily true of everyone.  In fact, some of you may be thinking to yourselves: "I really don't care about these questions".  And that's fair - not all of us are born with the same desires to know and learn as others, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, there is a more practical reason for pursuing science, and that is that inevitably, even the most basic and non-applied research (that is, research that isn't designed to have a purpose other than discovery) has led to some of the greatest advancements of the human species.

There are WAY too many examples of this to list here.  I suggest Googling to find more.  BUT, a big one that I often cite is the equations for electromagnetism, known as Maxwell's equations.  When James Mawell was developing these equations that describe how electricity and magnetism work, there was NO way he was planning on creating some of the very things that have resulted from his research.   But without his equations, there are so many things that we would not have today.  The best example in my mind is the computer.  The electric circuits involved in running a computer are based on Maxwell's equations.  And we all know how important computers are in EVERY aspect of life these days.

Once the subject of pure research, Maxwell's equations have given us powerful technology such as computers

There are also plenty of examples of how basic research in NASA has led to the production of widely used technology (see this article for an example).

I could go on and on, but the basic idea is this:  as we pursue scientific questions, we are not only expanding our understanding of our own existence, but we are paving the way for the progression of our society as a whole.  So, what will the discovery of the Higgs do for you?  Honestly, I don't know yet, but ask me again in the future, and I am sure I will have many answers for you!

Finally, this blog cannot go without insulting my enemy over at Background Dominated, who has been way too lazy to post anything at all since what seems like forever.  So, here I post a picture of him in a ridiculous hat:

Why would you wear that hat?!


  1. I agree that science should be pursued for the sake of discovery (as well as for improving our lives), and that most worthy science can't be explained in the context of how it will make your breakfast taste better (or some other immediately-applied benefit).

    However, part of what makes science interesting for many people is how it relates to us and our lives. So even when the connections are tenuous, I still think it's worth it for scientists to take some time to make their work relatable to people's everyday lives.

  2. Thanks Genevieve for that comment. I completely agree with you that it's worth it for scientists to take time to make their work relatable. However, I wonder how this can be effectively done in some situations, such as with the Higgs boson, other than saying that discovery leads to the progress of our society and the development of new technologies. Maybe you can help to answer this? You are particularly well-versed in this since you are involved in Education and Public Outreach! :)