Preposterous Universe

Saturday, February 12, 2005
Why we do what we do

In the comments to the post about Easterbrook's nonsense, the question arises about the practical usefulness of fields like particle physics. This deserves a more careful response, but I think the basic idea is straightforward: There are parts of science that are worth doing just because we want to know the answer, not because they will lead to tangible results. And we shouldn't be reluctant to admit it -- the "we" who want to know the answer isn't just professional scientists, it's a healthy fraction of people in all professions.

(And by the way -- does anyone other than me detect irony here? I mean, a complaint that society spends too much of its resources on the frivolous pursuit of high-energy physics is contained in a column about football?)

Matt McIrvin
points to a very nice post of his about neutrino astrophysics. But I agree with the spirit of the response by CapitalistImperialistPig, which I take to be that this really isn't the point. Pure science is worth doing for its own reasons, not because of hypothetical future spin-offs (even though such spin-offs have been remarkably important).

But CIP's comment contains one very bad idea: that we should require some sort of outreach from every professional scientist. The crucially important job of explaining ourselves to our fellow humans is a duty that inheres in the field as a whole, not in each individual. Outreach is a crucial part of the scientific enterprise, along with things like "theory" and "experiment" and "mentoring students" and "writing grant proposals." But there's no reason to require that every single scientist participate in experiments, for example (and thank goodness). What we need to do is to recognize the importance of outreach (not to mention education) for the continued health of science, and identify the best ways to get it done. Perhaps, as budgets are squeezed and money is diverted from real science to Bushian wild-goose chases, the scientific community will overcome its reluctance to give outreach the credit it is due.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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