There is an ancient question that still arises with some insistence: “What is basic science good for?” Take, as an example, the recent discovery of a boson that could be the Higgs particle. The experiment was performed in a large European laboratory and involved approximately $13.5 billion in funding. I have heard many questions about the extent to which it is worth spending so much money on this type of experiment. And so I decided, instead of resorting to scientific journals, to take look at another source, far removed from the academic universe. Forbes seemed interesting because it deals with the great fortunes of the world.
Forbes’ commentary mentions that the amount invested is large, but on its list of the world’s richest billionaires, over 50 have greater fortunes. It notes that $ 13.25 billion seems a trifle compared to the potential for advancement in computer technology, diagnostic imaging, and other scientific breakthroughs and—highlighting another facet of science— given how much closer the experiment brings us to understanding the mysteries of the Universe.
Before asking the question “What is basic science good for?” it is worthwhile to go back to the early twentieth century and look at the emergence of quantum physics. A group of young scientists, motivated by curiosity and passion at a magical moment. Certainly, they could never have imagined that that theory they developed to better understand nature could change the world. Quantum physics later resulted in the development of the laser, the starting point of laser discs, modern computer central processing units, bar code readers, and atomic clocks that are the basis of the GPS system now used throughout the world.
What is curious is that all these discoveries did not occur in Europe, where these young scientists worked, but rather principally in the United States. According to an article by Max Tegmark and John Wheeler, published in Scientific American in 2001, it was estimated that 30% of the US Gross Domestic Product was based on inventions made possible by quantum mechanics. This alludes to the complex paths of science. When the laser was first demonstrated (1960), it was seen as a solution in search of a problem. Arthur Schawlow—who, together with Charles Townes, proposed the laser in an article in the Physical Review in 1958, which earned them the Nobel prize—mentioned that if the two had been working on a cure for cataracts, they would never have stumbled upon the idea of the laser.
There is no simple answer to explain why the applications of quantum physics were developed in the United States. But a fundamental contribution to this was the emergence of idea factories, including Bell Laboratory, that brought together notable engineers, technicians and scientists with solid basic training. It was where Bardeen, Shockley and Brattain had the idea of developing the transistor. The three won the Nobel Prize in physics for this and Bardeen later won a second Nobel in physics for superconductivity.
Today, some companies still try to bring together applied research and basic research. An example of this is Microsoft, where the mathematician Michael Freedman, a specialist in topology, winner of the Fields Medal in 1986 for his work on the Poincaré conjecture, is director of a research group in quantum computing.
But science cannot be seen solely with this utilitarian viewpoint; it is part of the culture of an era. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), by Picasso, and the work On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies (1905), by Einstein, both characterize an extraordinary time in the history of mankind. In 1902, Einstein formed a study group, the Olympia Academy, along with Conrad Habicht, a mathematician, and Maurice Solovin, a philosophy student, to discuss the work of Karl Pearson, Ernst Mach, John Stuart Mill, Henri Poincaré, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza and Miguel de Cervantes. At about the same time, Picasso formed the famous La bande à Picasso, which brought together people like André Salmon, Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. Both groups studied Science and Hypothesis, by Poincaré, for whom “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful, but because it delights. And it delights because it is beautiful.”
The great authors of the early twentieth century also wrote texts on the close connection between culture, science, art and our sense of beauty itself. Max Planck said it was impossible to differentiate cleanly between science, religion and art, and claimed that “the whole is never equal to the simple sum of its parts.” And Einstein observed that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed.” This shows the complexity that any scientific planning and discussion of the role of science in innovation must have, because in doing science, what counts is passion, curiosity. This is intertwined with innovation.
There is a strong utilitarian pressure on the university at the moment. However, when Robert Bayer, Vice President of Research at Stanford University and member of the Board of Science and Technology of the state of California, was asked about Stanford’s role in Silicon Valley, he replied that “the myth was that Stanford’s technology made Silicon Valley successful,” but a survey of 3,000 small companies showed that only 20 of them have used technology from Stanford directly or indirectly in their businesses. Stanford’s great contribution was providing educated, highly talented students.
In recent years, there has been a strong demand on Stanford to get directly involved in companies in Silicon Valley. But already in January of this year, an internal study with serious critiques of how the university has operated in previous years noted that “the value of education in the long term should not be just in the accumulation of knowledge or practices, but also in the ability to establish connections between them.” And that “if there is a single guiding principle that connects the various motivations that follow in this report, it is our determination to disintegrate boundaries in the lives of students, to provide an education that prepares them for the challenges and opportunities that await them.” The same observation was made at Harvard, which updated its curriculum. And here in Brazil, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) has contributed to this debate, through various documents on higher education reform, basic education reform, the teaching of science and instruction of children. The ABC proposes breaking down the barriers between university departments, promoting an education that is more in tune with our times. The proposals are good, but their implementation promises to be difficult and, in this case, we cannot blame the government: the academic community itself resists the changes.
In our current global crisis, the prime minister of China, after announcing to the National People’s Congress that Chinese GDP growth would decrease from 8% to 7.5%, for them a great tragedy, also announced that investment in basic research in 2012 would increase by 26% and funding of the top universities would grow around 24%. His promise, made in January 2012, would more than double the nation’s spending on research and development over the next five years. Thus, the battle against the global crisis is linked to scientific development. And what is Brazil’s position with regard to this? We have been following an upward trajectory in recent years and have, in fact, a long history of great successes, such as Petrobras, Embraer and Embrapa. All are associated with a genuine government policy to train human resources. We then had a great idea, which was to establish sector funds, taxes collected from businesses to fund research. But their latest growth does not seem to be in line with the strategy adopted by other BRICs to fight the global crisis. Finally, I want to mention an article by physicist Brian Greene, published in the New York Times in June, 2008. He speaks of a letter he received from an American soldier in Iraq, telling him how, in that hostile and lonely environment, one of his books had become a sort of lifeline for him. It introduced him to the power that science has to give context and meaning to life. So, this is a major goal of science, to which I would add that, due to a subtle quirk of human evolution, the passion for science serves humanity. It revolutionizes people’s daily lives, affects our social organization, our manners and customs.
This and the following articles are the result of talks given at the first of seven preparatory meetings for the 2013 World Science Forum, held at the main offices of FAPESP August 29 – 31, 2012Republish