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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) was a genius. He was also the ultimately practical person devoted to producing inventions with commercial applications. His quote on airships from 1897 is typical: I am not, however, figuring on inventing an airship. I prefer to devote my time to objects which have some commercial value, as the best airships would only be toys. Fortunately the Wright brothers liked playing with toys and indeed the airplane was just a toy for many years after it was first invented. But just ask Boeing, Airbus, or even Bombardier if airplanes are still toys. Progress requires both the practical people, like Edison, and the people who play with toys, like the Wright brothers.

Let’s pick on Edison again. The practical Edison patented something known as the Edison effect, but did nothing more with it. The effect was this:  if a second electrode is put in a light bulb, it is found that an electrical current would flow if the voltage was applied in the right direction. This lead to the diode which improved radio reception and in the hands of people, who liked playing with toys, lead to the vacuum tube. The vacuum tube is now largely obsolete but began the electronics revolution. Again, we see that progress depends on the people who like playing with toys as well as the people concerned with immediate practical applications. The practical use of an observation, like the Edison effect, is frequently not immediately obvious.

With the light bulb, Edison played a different role. The light bulb is at the end of the chain of discovery. It relies on all the impractical work of people like Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) and James Maxwell (1831 – 1879), who developed the ideas needed for the practical generation and transmission of electrical power. Without the power grid that their discoveries made possible, the light bulb would have only been a toy.

The discovery of radium is another example of a pure research project leading to practical results. At one time, radium was used extensively to treat cancer. To quote Madam Marie Curie[1] (1867 – 1934): We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium, a benefit for humanity.

An even more striking example of how serendipitously science advances technology is the modern computer. It relies on transistors which are very much quantum devices. The early development of quantum mechanics was driven by the study of atomic physics. So, I could just imagine Earnest Rutherford (1871 – 1937), an early experimenter in atomic physics, thinking: I want to help develop a computing device so I will scatter some alpha particles. Not bloody likely! The implications of pure research are simply unknowable. However, I doubt the Higgs boson will ever have practical applications. The energy scale is simply too far removed from the everyday scales.

But pure research contributes to society in another way. A prime example is the cyclotron. It was invented in 1932 for use in the esoteric study of nuclear physics. Initially, they were only in top physics departments and laboratories. Now they are in the basements of many hospitals were they are used to make rare isotopes for medical imaging and treatment. The techniques developed for pure research frequently find their way into practical use. The idea is captured nicely in the term: space age technology.  While standing on the moon did not produce any real benefits to mankind, the technology developed in the enterprise did; hence the term: space age technology.

Of course, I cannot leave this topic without bring up the World Wide Web. The initial development was done at CERN in support of particle physics. I remember a colleague getting all excited about this new software development, but initially it was something only a geek like her could love. The links were denoted by numbers that had to be typed in, no clicking on links. Then the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign developed a browser, Mosaic, with a graphical interface and embedded pictures. This browser was released in 1993 and looks much like any browser today. The rest is history. But, two other things were needed to make the World Wide Web a hit. The first was computers (those things that were developed from Rutherford scattering alpha particles) with sufficient capabilities to run the more powerful browsers and, of course, the internet itself. The internet was initially just an academic network but the World Wide Web provided the impetus to drive it into most homes. Here again we see a combination of efforts: academic at CERN and NCSA and commercial at the internet providers.

Thus, we see pure research providing the raw material for technological development. The raw material is either the models, like quantum mechanics, or the inventions like cyclotrons. These are then used by practical men like Edison to generate useful technology. However, there is also a cultural component: satisfying our curiosity. While the spinoffs may be the main reason politicians and the tax payers support pure science, it is not the motivation driving the scientists who work in pure science. In my own case, I went into physics to understand how the universe works. To a large extend that desire has been fulfilled, not so much by my own efforts but by learning what others have discovered. More generally, the driving force in pure science is curiosity on how the universe works and the joy of discovery. Like Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506), Robert Scott (1868 – 1912) or Captain James Kirk (b. 2233), pure scientists are exploring new worlds and going where no man, or woman, has gone before.

[1] The first person to win two Nobel prizes.


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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Nobel Prize vast industry PCR was Kary Mullis driving a mountain road plus marijuana. Yang and Lee were pariahs Christmas 1956 but Nobel Laureates December 1957 for doing an Officially stupid experiment. PAM Dirac told Otto Stern to calculate proton magnetic moment (trivial) not measure it (dreadful). Stern looked, the Dirac equation failed, 1943 Nobel Prize.

    Physics elegantly assumes vacuum mirror symmetry toward fermionic matter. SUSY; string/M-theory and quantum gravitations are not empirical. Given furies of inserted symmetry breakings in both (e.g., Chern-Simons correction to Einstein-Hilbert action), test spacetime symmetry with crystallography’s enantiomorphic space groups. Isotropic vacuum chokes on periodic lattices (arxiv:1109.1963). Physics could fail (jpeg) as cartography falsifies the Shroud of Turin. Somebody should look (jpeg).

  • Manong Geo

    I appreciate this very much,at least I know I am not alone in my journey to go deeper in the understanding of the real beauty of the cosmos and it behaves and works. Keep up the good work professor. Bear also mind,you are not alone in your combat to defeat the mysteries of nature.

  • Manong Geo

    *and it behaves and works

  • Oppenhemier Gin

    I do not understand those uninterested in pure research given all our realities are based on expierence why would one choose to remove one of their basic senses. I stumbled into physics while in pursuit of a greater understanding of lifes purpose and once the realazation that physics is not what the media portrays it as a tomb like math book with unsolvable problems but a very detailed story with the players still being identified the pursuit to learn and apply its laws and discoveries is part of who I am. Must mention I am not a suppoter of String Theory…too convienent for the math lovers…quote somewhere about it just being model making that I agree with. I appreciate your article showing the modern by-product benefits of pure research. Thank you