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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

The Hunt for the Elusive Reason

— By Lindsay Davies, Communications Assistant

I think it’s safe to say a good chunk of the population is not all that familiar with science – myself included, so we wonder “Why is it important to put so much money into scientific research if we don’t know that anything will come of it?”  Well that’s a main reason – we don’t know if anything will come of it, but we if we don’t try, we will never know.

Every Wednesday, TRIUMF has an open lecture for students to help us understand the concepts behind the science we do here.  Yesterday’s lecture was on the importance of fundamental research and how you never know what’s useful until you fully understand it.

The first example was from way back in the 1600s, where Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first discovered microbes.  Having a familiarity with glass, van Leeuwenhoek created small glass lenses through heating small shards of glass in a hot flame, and discovered they could magnify objects.  He created varying magnifications, which he then used to study the microorganisms in the pond water. He discovered bacteria which was then discovered to make anyone in his town of Delft in the Netherlands sick that drank it.  Over his lifetime, he ground more than 500 optical lenses along with over 250 microscopes. Through the microscopes, he made many other discoveries, including the banded pattern muscular fibers in 1682.

But if you asked someone back then to put money into researching glass to view microorganisms before anyone knew they existed – do you think they would?  They’d think you were crazy! But now we know that research can take us many places unknown.

Now let’s jump to the late 1800s.  Electrical discharges were observed within vacuum tubes (cathodes) when voltage was applied to it, later to be discovered as streams of electrons (which are now more commonly known as electron beams).  Through his experiments, Wilhelm Röntgen discovered that the rays created within the cathodes could penetrate material.  When looking into the external effects from various types of vacuum tube equipments as an electrical discharge would pass through them, he found that the cathode rays caused a fluorescent effect on a small cardboard screen with barium platinocyanide painted on it.  This led to further experiments where he covered the tubes with a light-tight cover. When testing to ensure this, he noticed a faint shimmering from the barium platinocyanide screen he was planning on using next.  He then considered the idea that a new type of ray could be possible, which he dubbed the “x-ray”.  A few weeks later, he took the very first picture of his wife’s hand with this new technology using x-rays, creating an image of her hand’s skeletal structure.

But back then, if you asked the population to fund research into the effects of running electricity through vacuum tubes, they again would have thought you were crazy.

So who’s to say what will happen in the future with research?  What if we do discover the Higgs Boson? In theory, it should resolve inconsistencies in current theoretical physics, but what else could it help discover?  For all we know it could help us determine something arbitrary, but it could help us discover something extraordinary. And what if we don’t discover the Higgs Boson, but discover something else entirely? Where will that lead us? We’ll never know unless we try.

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