Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Justify Your Existence

It's tough being a scientist. You work incredibly hard in relative obscurity, only a handful of people understand what you do, and your job is often at the mercy of the nation's waxing and waning enthusiasm for science. Physicists especially must constantly defend why they do what they do; knowledge for its own sake is a harder sell than the promise of a new energy-saving technology or cure for a deadly disease.

A few months ago I was interviewing a chemist about his research on oxidation states of sulfur in biological molecules. With a slightly embarrassed smile, I asked him why his research was important. Before going on to explain how oxidation states might play a role in the onset of Alzheimer's disease and cancer, he said that, for the most part, the point of his research was to increase our understanding of how stuff works. It concerned him, he said, that the public seemed to find this kind of justification insufficient; in the meantime, he's learned to draw connections between seemingly insignificant research topics, like oxidized sulfur, to big picture issues people can grasp and care about.

Fundamental research—the quest for a deeper understanding of the universe—has resulted in all sorts of useful things, from the World Wide Web to cellular phones. But there's rarely (never?) a clear path from A to B. The fundamental physics research of today will certainly have a hand in the technologies we rely on in the future, but there's no predicting how or when.

So I was happy to stumble upon (thanks, uncountable!) this great essay in Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, by University of Toronto physics grad student Lindsay LeBlanc. LeBlanc studies the behavior of extremely cold atoms, and she does physics, she says, for the sheer beauty of it. Which, incidentally, is a much more modest stance than claiming you're going to single-handedly solve the energy crisis or cure cancer. The essay's also a lovely peek into the mind of a researcher, and I think achieves her aim:

Like an artist, I want to share this beauty with others. I want them to know what it is to see through my eyes.
The photo included in this post shows part of her group's experimental set-up. Physics really is beautiful!

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I agree math and physics are beautiful for in their own right just like art.