On Sunday, 28 March 2015, BBC ran an article entitled “What is the point of the Large Hadron Collider?” The question reflects public’s hesitation to fund research that has no immediate practical application. Indeed, anyone who has taught abstract ideas to general students has, on more than one occasion, been asked “What is it good for?”
The BBC article even quotes a senior British scientist as grumbling – in 2008 – “the particle physicists seem to get all the money they want”. The scientist believed that humanity faces a long list of severe and immediate threats which are more deserving of the kind of huge investment devoted to the research at CERN. This argument, made by a scientist who is competing with big science for funding, appears to be convincing. But it leaves out some important angles.
I would like to address the question in the broader context of all human social activities, including science. There are two main angles from which the question could be addressed. From one angle, the answer stems from the curiosity inherent in our species. My answer comes in the form of a list of questions posed to those who are doubtful about the merit of investing in fundamental research. For each question, I provide a short list of answers which are either practical applications, or ideas that eventually led to practical applications.
- Q: What was the point of the double-helix in the 1950s? A: Structure of DNA and all the biotechnology it has instigated.
- Q: What was the point of studying hydrogen atom in 1925-26? A: Discovering the quantum theory.
- Q: What was the point of the relativity theory in 1900-1905? A: Prediction of antimatter in 1928, nuclear energy, GPS.
- Q: What was the point of playing with magnets and batteries in 1820-30s? A: Electromagnetic waves, radio, television, telephone, electric power.
- Q: . . . . . . . . .?
- Q: What was the point of our ancestors bashing stones together almost 2 million years ago? A: Using the resulting sharp chips to cut their kill’s skin and meat.
None of the discoveries above – and hundreds of others not included in the list – was made anticipating the application in which it was used eventually because no applications could have been conceived at the time of the discovery. It was simply the innate curiosity of our species that drove scientists to their discoveries. Only after a complete mastery of the new ideas and an understanding of their ramifications, was it possible to find ways in which they could be used for inventions satisfying some human needs.