Sun, Jul 12, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Scientific pursuit is no joke — if you know its purpose

The truth of beliefs about the world can be seen only if those beliefs are turned into actions that produce practical outcomes

By Peter Dear

An apocryphal story sometimes heard among physicists concerns a toast, proposed by his Cambridge University colleagues, to J.J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron in 1897: “To the electron: may it never be of use to anyone!” Pure mathematicians supposedly tell a similar joke about their profession.

Why should it be considered witty to celebrate the uselessness of knowledge? I witnessed a similar attitude from a cosmologist when I participated in a radio show a few years ago: the host remarked to him that his research “has virtually no practical applicability,” to which he quickly replied: “I’m proud of that, yes.”

These jokes rely on the same assumption: everyone thinks that knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, should be useful. So it’s funny to boast that one’s own brand of knowledge, whether experimental physics, mathematics, or cosmology, is useless.

But the joke wouldn’t work if there were not at the same time another widely shared assumption that scientific knowledge has a value independent of any practical use. After all, it would not be funny if a charity dedicated to famine relief celebrated its own ineffectiveness; practical value in that case would be paramount, because it would be the only real reason for the charity to exist.

So, even though potential usefulness is the reason why governments devote so much money to scientific research, people really expect more from science than that. On this view, science also has a quite different, higher aim: understanding the natural world.

Einstein may have drawn former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s attention to the possibility of making nuclear weapons, but he is chiefly remembered for his profound ideas about the nature of the universe. More recent scientific gurus, such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, have presented a similar image to the public. Science from this perspective is about natural philosophy, an enterprise that seeks to acquire deep understanding of the world regardless of whether that knowledge can be put to use.

Jokes also betray a certain uneasiness about the apparent contradictions that they reveal. In this case, the uneasiness derives from a fundamental uncertainty about which of the two faces of science, natural philosophy or instrumentality, represents its true character. Is science really about understanding the world, with instrumentality being a matter of fortuitous spin-offs? Or is it really about putting the natural world to human uses, with natural philosophy being little more than a language to account for why certain techniques work?

The nineteenth century invented the familiar terms “pure” and “applied” science as a way of reconciling these alternative understandings. Pure science, as the name suggests, is presented as the “real thing,” untainted by practical considerations and rooted in properly conducted empirical and theoretical investigation of nature. Applied science takes the knowledge provided by pure science and puts it to work.

But that straightforward picture bears little resemblance to the complexities of real scientific activity: If applied science involved nothing more than the application of the results of pure science, there would be no need for “research and development” departments in manufacturing corporations, or research laboratories at chemical or electronics companies. The instrumental achievements of science would depend solely on the scraps falling from the pure scientist’s table.

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