Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Pure Research

I try to focus this blog for the most part on news stories related to scientific research and discoveries (among other things - hence the name 360), but sometimes I feel the need to get a bit more topical, and stories from a number of sources over the last week or so have been bringing up a bit of my old ire on a topic I'm fairly passionate about - the importance of pure scientific research.

On September 10, the world will be witnessing the rise of the most powerful particle accelerator ever with the activation of CERN's Large Hadron Collider. This will be carried out in Europe with, largely, America acting in the role of an observer.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder whether America will ever really take the steps necessary to devote ourselves to the study of pure science again. Bell Labs earned 6 Nobel Prizes, including the invention of the transistor and the laser, arguably two of the most fundamental technological developments of the 20th century, which allowed for the creation of computers and communication devices on a scale that made them able to transform our day-to-day lives!

This research was not carried out because of market trends, but because of a dedication to learning more about the world. It was "pure research" but also was carried out with an understanding that gaining knowledge, and leveraging it in effective ways, yields positive economic results.

Now, though, the scope of pure research is diminishing throughout America. Bell Labs is certainly not alone in its myopic desire to focus on only a handful of applied technologies, growing ever more specialized. Science departments at universities grow similarly focused on the one or two areas where they have, historically, excelled the most.

In 1904, the fields of inquiry which had the greatest impact throughout the twentieth century - quantum physics, atomic physics, nuclear physics, relativity, particle physics, lasers, transistor electronics, and so on - were literally non-existent. It was the most pure of pure research, thought experiments on purely abstract topics such as how to explain Brownian motion and the motion of charged particles, which brought about the television, nuclear energy (and bombs), cell phones and communication transformations, lasers, personal computing, and the like.

The transformation of tomorrow lies with knowledge that is just without our reach today. In order to access it, pure research must be allowed the chance to raise its arms up high, resting on the shoulders of government and industry. Without having the chance to perform this research, it is sad to think what will happen to our country and our world ... or, even worse, what will not be allowed to happen.


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