CERN Accelerating science

Why is fundamental physics worth researching?

by Jack Fraser

What's the point of investing fortunes into answering questions in advanced physics?

100 years ago, we might have asked the same questions of Schroedinger, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, and the other pioneers of the quantum revolution.

After all — what’s the point of doing all this esoteric stuff with matter far smaller than anyone can possibly comprehend, what possible use could this have? What were we paying them for anyway? Just to sit around wondering about fuzzy cats or teleporting electrons?

Lot of nonsense, right?

Then, between the 1940s and 1960s, something incredible was invented. The humble transistor.

The solid state physics required to design and build this semiconducting device is entirely based on quantum mechanics. No quantum mechanics: no transistors. And do you know what has transistors in abundance? The device you are reading this on.

I am writing this in the library of Trinity College, Oxford. I have within a 1 metre radius of me more than 4 billion transistors (according to Transistor count, my Google Pixel, and my Intel Core i7 laptop). A brief survey shows that if I expand it to a 10 metre radius, I get more than 20 billion transistors, operating the phones, tablets and computers of those around me.

In the entirety of Oxford there will be trillions of transistors. Back in 2014, a Forbes article estimated that there were 2,913,276,327,576,980,000,000 transistors that had ever been made. That’s 2.9×10212.9×1021transistors.

Every single one of those 3 sextillion transistors was constructed only because of our knowledge of quantum mechanics.

Transistor technology dominates our life, completely and utterly.

Every single sector of the economy is entirely dependent on computers, such that it is estimated that severe Solar storms could cost USA tens of billions of dollars per day, because of the effects it would have on our tech-dominated lives.

And it all would be impossible (or, at least, ludicrously bulky!) without the quantum mechanics discovered and formalised by the pioneers of their fields.

It is the height of hubris to assume that everything we know now is everything that will ever be useful. There’s a famous quote from around the end of the 19th century, often misattributed to Charles Holland Duell which says: "Everything that can be invented has been invented, all that is left is to perfect what we have." 

This was from around 1899, six years before Einstein overturned our notions of space and time, and the first Quantum Revolution.

119 years later, we look back on this quote with scorn: look how much the world has changed since then.

I am broadcasting this text simultaneously and near-instantly to the entire planet, from a device which can carry out every single calculation performed by every single human being before 1899 in a second, whilst simultaneously storing the contents of every single book written before 1899.

That would be insane to someone back then. I would be locked up in a sanitarium for even suggesting such a thing were possible.

But it happened, and these changes were only possible because of the work of the pioneers, the people who did the research.

So the question is: did those researchers set out to build the information age?

Did Dirac sit down and say “you know, I really want to play Candy Crush whilst sitting on the toilet, I better get to unifying the two divergent views of quantum mechanics, and also begin the first foray into a quantum field theory, so that we can get cracking”?


No he did not.

The consequences of their research were entirely unseen. Nobody knew at the time that their research would have commercial applications — the thought would probably have seemed quite ridiculous to them.

Nevertheless, here we are.

So, the askers of this question (and there are many of them — including my parents!) are like the apocryphal Charles H. Duell of today. Implicit in the question is that we know all the physics we need for the future: that there’s no point in carrying on, since the answers are not going to be useful.

Now, remember that must have been exactly how they felt 100 years ago!

History does not look kindly on that quote. It teaches us a lesson about modesty of knowledge: we can never know what is right around the corner. We can never know how the discoveries of today might be useful in 100 years time.

That in itself is motivation to carry on answering questions. It is an investment in the future of humankind. How, when, and even if that investment will pay off is unknown. But history shows us that every time we try to answer fundamental questions, it has consequences for us as a species further down the line.

Why would 2018 be any different to 1918?

On a personal note, I think that this purely economic argument is far from the whole picture.

Nobody sits down and demands that J. K. Rowling’s books be important for the development of mankind. Nobody expects the Marvel films to speak to solving the issues of the world, or that Van Gogh was a prick for not addressing world hunger.

Art is Art. It needs no justification other than to speak to some deep need inside of us to admire, to tell stories and to seek beauty.

Money is poured into the arts — people buy expensive paintings (with no utilitarian purpose), and go to the cinema, and do all sorts of “pointless but expensive” things.

Why should science be held to a different standard?

Knowledge is Knowledge. Like art, it speaks to a primal part of us, the need to understand, to catalogue and investigate.

Science is (one part of) an embodiment of what it means to be human, what sets us apart from the animals. To pin it down for purely utilitarian purposes is deeply, deeply sad — in the same way that doing the same for art would be.

Science is by no means the entire picture, but to clip its wings with instantaneous utilitarianism is not only foolish (see above for the economic arguments), it means sacrificing some of what it means to be human. It means calling to an end the endeavour which began since we first started banging sticks together, and making fire.

Science, like art, is its own end.

Knowledge is power, and science is knowledge.


This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.


Image Credits: Photowalk 2015 - Todd Vorenkamp


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