This week I was on a radio program to talk about the new results from BICEP2, which found the first evidence of cosmic inflation. One of the questions I was asked was about the practical applications of this research. I gave some mealy-mouthed answer about how cutting-edge research can lead to new technologies we can’t even imagine, and gave an example of pure research leading to practical applications. But afterwards, the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that it was the wrong answer.
The question about the practical applications of pure scientific research is a common one. After all, if society is going to spend money on this kind of work, it has a right to demand some bang for its buck. Right?
There is some truth to that. There are times when particular areas of research are funded with a certain goal, such as targeted cancer research, or the development of higher density batteries. But some research don’t have a goal other than the discovery of new things, and they are a success even if they don’t discover what we expect. In the case of BICEP2, the project discovered real evidence of inflation. Even if the project produces no “practical” applications it has been a success, because we now know (assuming the results hold up) that inflation occurred in the early universe. Not just suspect because it would answer many questions about the big bang, but truly know. We have more knowledge about the universe than we had before, and that matters.
When someone asks about the practical implications, they take a small view of science. It ignores the fact that scientific knowledge is itself valuable. Science arises from the innate curiosity that is part of what makes us human. To do science well requires some of the best aspects of humanity: thoughtfulness, honesty, skepticism, creativity and equality. It requires us to work together, and it drives us to communicate ideas clearly. It is a human endeavor that inspires us to do better, and to be better.
It also requires us to look to the future, not just the past. We invest in scientific research now so that we can make scientific discoveries in the future. The knowledge we gain is not just valuable for us, but for future generations. By investing in science we are able to bequeath to our children a greater understanding of the universe than we were given. It’s true that pure scientific research will inevitably lead to new practical applications. It will give rise to new industries we can’t currently imagine. But that shouldn’t be the reason why we invest in science.
Science is a profound act of hope. It is what a hopeful and forward looking society does. And that’s why we should do it.
Image: NRAO/AUI (http://goo.gl/y14KXl)
Later analysis would show that the researchers had made a mistake – in reality the number of divorces had not changed. "
You’ve likely seen a representation of the big bang. A sea of dark silence, and then…Bang! A flash of light emanating from a point, then expanding outward. The universe has begun…
Popular science loves to portray the big bang this way. It was even portrayed this way in the new Cosmos series. The only problem is that isn’t how the universe began, and portraying it this way raises all sorts of misconceptions.
In reality, there was no outside darkness into which the big bang appeared. The big bang didn’t begin at a point in space and time, it was space and time. If you want an accurate picture of the big bang, it shouldn’t be from the outside looking in. It should be from within the big bang itself. If we could travel backward in time, we would see a universe where galaxies rush together. The background temperature of the Universe would increase as it contracted. The stars would fade and evaporate into primordial gas. The galaxies would dissipate into hydrogen and helium gas. For a while the universe would be dark.
A more accurate representation of the big bang would be light and heat in all directions. Credit: Planck/IPAC
Eventually the temperature and density of the universe would be high enough that it would visibly glow with its own internal heat. In every direction we would see a glow of light. The light would grow brighter as the temperature rises. It would soon reach a temperature of about 3000K, or about the temperature of the surface of a red dwarf star.
Except the light and heat would be in all directions. Everywhere you looked you would see a bright reddish glow. You would be surrounded by a gas of hydrogen and helium. At this point the universe would be only about 380,000 years old.
The idea of traveling backward in time sounds like science fiction, and in a way it is. But that bright reddish glow can still be seen today. As the universe expanded the glow has faded and cooled, so that now it is a dim background of microwaves. But it is still there. It is an image as close to the big bang as we can directly observe.
The big bang didn’t begin at a point, it began everywhere.
_Even though we cannot predict the random decay of any given atom, we can accurately predict the behavior of the sample as a whole_
is precisely the crux of the matter. That a process is hopelessly complex does not mean we cannot say anything at all about it: we can at least distinguish it from other complex processes, which is in effect what probability theory does for us. Deterministic examples you may have had in mind include Brownian motion as well as something as "simple" as a coin toss. The latter is a very clear illustration of what I'm trying to say: the process whereby the coin tumbles through the air before eventually settling on one of its faces, is hopelessly complex, but the symmetry of the coin allows us to predict that it will come up tails as often as heads if we toss it toss it sufficiently many times.
It is true that there is a difference between classical (deterministic) and quantum randomness: in the former case, the complexity involved is evident (trillions of particles bumping into each other, a coin tumbling through the air), whereas in the latter randomness is part of the axiomatic framework. We simply refuse to explain why quantum processes seem random, we just accept that they are (well, unless you count the Feynman path integral interpretation, which makes quantum processes look like a kind of Brownian motion, but that's just convenient computational framework, rather than anything actually observed).
Finally, a very important point is that mathematical definitions of randomness in 's link describe some idealized, absolutely irreducible complexity. However, when we apply such idealized models to real world phenomena, they are always mere approximations. Which is why I spoke about intractable complexity in the original post: when we encounter an intractably (for us, at the present stage of development!) complex phenomenon, we model it as random. But we may yet develop to a point where what we see as random now will not seem random at all.
Read this interview for some of my tips. But I left out an obvious but much-overlooked tactic for solving problems: talk to lots of smart people, and ask lots of questions.
Especially in math, there's a bad myth of the 'solitary genius' who cracks a hard problem all by himself. (Yeah, in this myth it's always a 'he'.) Remember Andrew Wiles, who spent years working in his attic and finally came out with a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem? Well, actually that's not quite right. He didn't start from scratch: first he learned all the best techniques from other experts, and chose a strategy developed by some other people. Then he held a regular seminar with some grad students where he'd explain his work and get feedback. And then, his first attempt to prove the theorem failed. It was on the right track, but it had some holes in it! So what did he do? He got a grad student to help him out, and they finished the job.
For every 'solitary genius' that does something great without any help, there must be a dozen geniuses who are smart enough to get lots of help... and even more 'solitary failures' who get stuck or simply delude themselves into thinking they are doing great work, lacking corrective feedback from conversations.
In the interview, I mentioned the importance of talking to lots of smart people when trying to come up with good research problems. But it's equally important when you're in the midst of solving them. Yes, you need to sit alone quietly and think. But that's just part of it.
Toting up all we've promised to various special interests and voting blocs and all we're taxing, something is going to give and science is high up on the list of things to cut when the world gets tired of funding our deficits. The more science funding we get out of the political process, the less that crash is going to hurt science progress when it eventually happens.
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