“[A] scientist involved in basic research is by definition motivated: We do what we do because we are passionate about understanding the universe...
Human ingenuity being what it is, the future will undoubtedly bring applications based on discoveries made with the LHC. Although, as with Newton’s gravity, it may be some time before we’re privy to all of them, and to their implications. For our children and grandchildren, however, I am sure that the wait will have been worthwhile.”
In my earlier post Knowledge for the sake of knowledge, I was complaining that all to often to make a case for the relevance of basic research the argument is that eventually some technology will come out of it. This leaves aside the relevance that knowledge itself has, whether or not it results in some new gadget that you'll find under the tree in a decade, despite the fact that most people working in the field are driven by the gain in knowledge since applications are often too remote to be a tangible personal goal. I think that insights on fundamental questions about the nature of reality themselves have a direct influence on our societies. Consider topics like free will or the multiverse-question whether the physics in our universe is the only one possible or just one of many possibilities. I was thus happy to see that Heuer didn't try to sell the LHC as something that obtains its value merely by its rôle in producing new technologies.
In Canada, basic research is doing well: As you might have read on Peter's blog or in the Globe & Mail, the Bank of Montreal has donated CAN $4 million to Perimeter Institute to establish “the BMO Financial Group Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute.” Bill Downe, President and Chief Executive Officer of the BMO Financial Group said
“The Institute’s ambitious thirst for new knowledge places it at the very frontier of discovery. Its thinkers can change our world by boldly pushing the boundaries of our current understanding of physical laws. We couldn’t be more proud of this association and hope that our unique investment in the BMO Isaac Newton Chair in Theoretical Physics will enhance innovation in Canada and encourage other private sector donors to fund Chairs at PI.”
So, congratulations to PI! In PI's press release, one also finds a quotation from Mike Lazaridis, founder of Perimeter Institute, who repeats the usual justification for basic research with the prospect of technological applications. In fact, he goes so far to say:
“Theoretical physics has driven the most important insights and technological advances in the history of humankind. Although the outcomes from basic research may not be immediate, they are inevitable...”
That's quite a bold statement, don't you think?
I completely agree with Heuer that basic research is instrumental for progress, but I'm far from sure that basic research of any sort “inevitably” leads to technological advances. Take for example the recent media fuzz about the re-recycled idea that the universe did not start with the Big Bang, and consider for a moment this turns out to be correct. The question is clearly of high relevance for us to understand our place in the universe, but since the distinction between bang and bounce lies 14 billion years in the past I'm having some trouble imagining what technology might possibly come out of an experimental distinction. I can easily imagine what it might be good for to find superluminal propagation of information to be possible, and could come up with a dozen applications for antigravitation. I can imagine that the development of quantum gravity and/or string theory will one day be of relevance for quantum computing, and that finding the Higgs or some alternative mechanism to generate particle masses will in the remote future play a role for energy generation. But especially when it comes to cosmology, it seems to me the outcome is mainly in the realm of pure knowledge, addressing the eternal questions where we come from and where we go to.
But hey, my imagination is finite, so let your fantasy fly free and tell me what inevitable application a big bounce scenario might have one day. Even better, tell me what, in your wildest dreams, will be the outcome of some basic research of your choice in theoretical physics that is pursued today.