Today I saw this post on Reddit. Long story short this guy was asking the r/askscience subreddit why we do research like the CERN experiments, as it has no practical use. There are several reasons. I’ve mentioned some of these on here before, but they can always be mentioned again. First, research that we conduct now that is interesting only to a small subset of people may be applied for other things later. Second, furthering our understanding of the world isn’t frivolous. Third, in many cases basic research must be completed at universities because industry will not pay for it.
Some examples, bird migration research that told us a lot about birds historically probably wasn’t very interesting to much of the scientific community. However, it’s become more important of late. One of my friends commented to me about how in Europe during the Avian flu, migration patterns became extremely important for predicting where the next could be. There are further uses, those migration patterns are being used to determine where to place wind mills, because we don’t want to put a wind farm in the middle of a bird migration path. The slaughter would be horrifying. Finally, changes in migration patterns may represent a shift in local climates. If birds take longer to migrate south, it indicates that the weather isn’t changing as fast as it used to. Over time this data could indicate a trend and we should look for further evidence of climate change.
In 2009 there was a rash of articles that questioned the importance of scientific research in some cases. This isn’t really new, even at that point there’d been the infamous McCain bear comments. Even scientists make fun of some of the more obscure types of research with the Ig Noble Awards (One award was given to a research that only cracked the knuckles on one hand to test for arthritis differences (there wasn’t any)). Despite this, some of this research is interesting and could be useful in the future. Take the recent finding that fish are angry in boring fish tanks. This research is pretty much useless unless you’re a fish fan. However, it also shows us that we clearly don’t understand animals as well as we think we do. Even popular stories about the memory span of gold fish was shown to be wrong by the MythBusters. These examples indicate that many people don’t understand the importance of research and that even scientists don’t. However, even seemingly pointless research can illuminate our understanding of the world. People love to know nearly pointless facts. This also ties back to the my first point above, we never know when something seemingly useless can suddenly have an importance beyond the scope of the original study. It may save lives. That finding about fishes could help build better large scale aquariums where it is safer to interact with dangerous fish, like killer whales and sharks.
My final point is that some basic research will not be conducted by industry players. There’s no guarantee on any return on some scientific investigation. However, it can be incredibly important for the advancement of industry. Quantum computing could be the next big thing for computing, however it’s being researched by a combination of industry and universities. Most of the money and risk is on the university side though. Our understanding of particle physics helps us understand how quantum computing can help. Eventually we may be able to use this neutrino finding, if it pans out, in communication systems. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t be able to use the spin of a neutrino to transmit information.
Seemingly frivolous research is an important part of the scientific process. Enjoy it.