My favorite part about science is the fact that so much of it is, in essence, just for fun. The problem for grant writers must be spinning it so that it sounds like there’s a practical “use-value” for research.
One of the first posts for this blog was about a scene from Also Sprach Zarathustra. Specifically, Nietzsche was making a claim about the value of gold. Now, I had not expected the reaction that this claim would elicit from some of my friends. One friend in particular happens to be a stock trader and professional poker player, a guy who makes his living by understanding the value of money. He argued that gold is not useless because it has exchange-value.
I and other friends argued that there was a fundamental difference between use- and exchange-value. I mean, if gold had a use-value, it wouldn’t be used as currency. Of course, it’s often used today in many industries as a conductor, but that’s beside the point. Nietzsche did not write by electric light, so in his time, the analogy holds, and even to this day, only a tiny percentage of all the gold mined is used for industry. The vast majority of it is locked up in jewelry and hoards.
Of course, the comparison that I was trying to draw at the time relates directly to how scientific research is conducted and the reasons for conducting that research. For instance, a recent discovery has been all over the science news circuit as well as the blogosphere, and it’s kind of a big deal. But the take-away lesson of the story is kind of tricky.
Science always has a sort of “cool factor.” You hear about new a new kind of supernova that was discovered or this new quantum entanglement discovery (links above), and you consume that knowledge immediately. You are joyous. It’s a sort of cathartic experience. I mean, quantum entanglement in a mechanical system! That’s pretty rad, right? But then you ask the average reader of Scientific American what it means in practical terms and you might get a vague answer about quantum computers. Based on this discovery, however, that’s a really long way off. This discovery is cool despite its apparent uselessness. We like this kind of knowledge simply because it’s interesting and satisfies a need deep inside ourselves. A need to know something true about the world that we didn’t know before.
This is why scientists do this kind of research. The scientists working on the project are way more concerned with knowing things than making the world a better place. Or rather, they are trying to make the world a better place through expansion of knowledge because knowledge has an intrinsic value that is not easily defined.
“Hey, dudes, we’ve finally demonstrated quantum entanglement in a mechanical system!”
“Oh, dude, you rock!”
“Yeah, I know right? This is totally sweet in and of itself.”
“Yeah, man, the only thing we’re really interested in is continuing our research in this field!”
“Woo!! Bong rips for all!”
Or something like that. They want more grant money for pure research. But somehow they have to convince the people with the checkbooks that there’s a utilitarian reason for doing this sort of research. Again, some vague claim about computers that are orders of exponentially more powerful, couched in very careful rhetoric that doesn’t actually promise results anytime soon.
I mean, the LHC is the perfect example of this. They’re looking for evidence that the Higgs Boson exists. It might not! And whether it does or not, knowing will be way cooler than not knowing.
Science is not about progress. Science defies progress. Science shatters the myth of progress in many ways, which is why in some situations pure knowledge is not without its consequences. For instance, evolutionary theory defies the very concept of progress.
And so, quantum entanglement has been demonstrated in a mechanical system. This is totally sweet. It has no bearing on our lives, but we are overjoyed to know it. Maybe someday down the road, this knowledge will have use-value, but for the time being, research will continue and we will be happy for it. Because we are so damned curious. Like kittens.