The most fascinating thing about science is the ideas, is the lifting of the Human spirit. –
We can justify what we do by the technological spinoffs, and it’s true General Relativity is esoteric, but you couldn’t use your GPS machine without it. Turns out the effects of General Relativity into satellites have to be incorporated, if not, within a second you’d lose all knowledge of where you were on Earth with the GPS satellites, so it’s true that even the most esoteric ideas sometimes have technological spinoffs, but I think it is misplaced to argue for doing fundamental research just because of these technological spinoffs.
The questions themselves have to be worth asking to be able to spend the money on it, but having said that, it is absolutely true that our current standard of living vitally depends on the curiosity-driven research that was done a generation or two before.
Discoveries come along that change everything when you didn’t expect it, and they come along because you didn’t know what you were looking for, and if we stop investing in fundamental research now, it is true that our standard of living a generation from now, our children, the legacy we leave our children, will be much poorer, and in fact, it’s one of the reasons why I argue that not just to live off selling natural resources, but to think about the future, about doing fundamental research, because the countries that are going to be able to compete in the XXI Century are those that are best at technology and ideas, and research.
So there is of course, not just this altruistic, idealistic notion of understanding the Universe, if we want to address the challenges of the XXI Century, from energy and climate change, we need to invest in fundamental research now.
I’m always worried about predictions about the future, and people always ask me what’s the next big thing, and I say if I knew I’d be doing it, but what I’m convinced of, is that the most important things that we know 50 years from now, will be things we have no idea about right now.
Nature continues to surprise us in ways we could never have expected. Nature is much more imaginative than the Human imagination is, and in order to make progress, we keep having to question nature, explore it, because it will yield those surprises that will change, not just our picture of ourselves, but the way we carry out our lives.
As far as I know, people don’t ask the question: ‘What’s the value of a Mozart symphony or a Picasso painting?’ Science is a cultural activity, and it’s produced some of the most amazing ideas that humans have ever thought about. And the cultural value of science, of understanding where we are, where we come from, is the same as art, music and literature. Great art, music and literature forces us to reasess our place in the Cosmos.
That’s what science does at its best, and if we are so empoverished that we have to stop asking questions, but where we come from and we’re we going, it’s indeed a sad time. These are the most interesting questions the Humans have ever asked, and by comparison to the money we spend in many other things, that is, in my opinion, much more useless, the investment is very small. And so, if we are at the point where we have to say: ‘Look, we can’t stop asking these esoteric questions, that change our picture of ourselves, then it’s a sad time for humanity.’