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Searching for Great Adventures

There are an infinite number of inspirational scientific journeys awaiting out there, and not all of them require looking up.

Tony Rothman

Much of this confused view of Great Adventure derives from a peculiarly American demand for “useful romance.” The obsession should surprise no one in a country founded on Manifest Destiny—a useful romance if ever there was one—and where Thomas Edison is a far greater hero than J. Willard Gibbs. The self- contradictory desire for both utility and romance is reflected in media coverage of science. It’s a fair bet that All Things Considered has devoted an order of magnitude more air time to string theory than to combustion physics. On the other hand, regardless of whether the topic is the Higgs boson or the mathematics of ponytails, any scientist facing a reporter knows there is no escape, none, from: “What are the practical applications?”

Reporters are almost instinctively drawn to the “woo factor.” At least that is what they called it at Discover magazine, where the editor-in-chief deemed it advisable to include a woo-factor article in every issue. I know this first hand because for a year in the 1980s I was the magazine’s designated Woo-Master. But the “What are the practical applications?” guillotine, dropping at the close of every science interview, shows that if we take inspiration from the far-out, the cosmological, and the spiritual, we nevertheless demand that “woo” raise our standard of living. In other words, we demand spinoffs.

NASA itself publishes a journal called Spinoffs, and claims credit for more than 1,600 practical inventions, though not Tang or Teflon. But the space agency is hardly alone in enlisting practical results to support the scientific cause. In a recent interview, Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, promoted basic research on the grounds that 50 percent of all industry is now based on quantum mechanics, which a century ago was viewed as infinitely stranger than practical. (This figure presumably reflects the percentage of the economy involving semiconductors. By the same argument one could claim that 100 percent of modern industry is based on electricity and magnetism—even though the founders of the communication and power industries understood little of their underlying physics.)


The appeal to spinoffs demonstrates that the argument from inspiration has never entirely persuaded the American public, lawmakers, or scientists themselves. Yes, the Apollo mission did inspire many Americans, but our rose-colored glasses should not tint away the fact that it wasn’t called the “space race” for nothing: The effort to beat the Soviets to the moon jostled with adventure and completely eclipsed a sensible scientific program. Let us also not forget that Apollo’s huge budget divided the nation into camps pro and con, and that within a few years of Neil Armstrong’s first steps, moon landings were met by a yawn.

Arguments over trickle-down science, a direct product of our demand for practical romance, are more complex than they are generally treated in public discourse. Some science always pays off in the long run, but most doesn’t, and the trouble is that one can never predict which discovery will change civilization. Advocates of applied research argue, often pointing to the Manhattan Project or Bell Labs, that such an approach has a better track record of producing results than the random walk of pure science. The debate is not trivial, but in the present context, they miss the mark. If we seek inspiration, wherefore spinoffs? If we demand spinoffs, wherefore inspiration?

No natural law compels the adoption of such an oxymoronic attitude, and it would be wise to change our attitudes and expectations. Most scientists may work in applied fields, but a substantial number pursue “curiosity-driven science.” Lawmakers should pronounce those words without derision, and we would do well to rethink the current model for research grant applications—a model that seems to require knowing the outcome of a program in advance, in contravention of the old joke: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” Nevertheless, one congressional leader recently drafted a bill requiring that the National Science Foundation fund only research that would manifestly “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare.” 

Reporters and lawmakers should recognize that in pursuing their passions, scientists and mathematicians are not unlike artists, at least until the need for funding rises. (A Large Hadron Collider admittedly costs more than even Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and demands more justification.) At the same time, the potential practical applications of an endeavor should not damn it to the realm of the mundane. We take for granted that flipping a switch produces light, but 150 years ago the same act was a revelation. That our power grid functions at all strikes me to this day as a miracle. Constructing a national smart grid should be viewed as a Great Adventure.

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