their reason d’etre. And yet it pains me considerably if somebody dismisses a paper or research project with the remark:
“Well, what problem does that solve?”Indeed, this came up in the discussion of the workshop I attended last week, the criticism that much of current research doesn’t seem to solve any existing problem.
I agree on the underlying sentiment. Yes, most of what gets published in physics these days will almost certainly turn out to be useless to the end of describing nature. But it’s always been this way and will always be this way. It’s in the nature of trial and error that you must try and err.
I disagree though that research is only worthy if it solves, or at least attempts to solve, a known problem.
To begin with good problems don’t grow on trees. Yes, it is often the case that the solution of one problem grows up to be the next problem, ready to pick. But that isn’t always so. Sometimes you have to go and hunt them down. And many problems are found just because researchers – both theorists and experimentalists – followed their curiosity and stumbled upon something interesting. The generation of problems is so important to progress that physicists sometimes are tempted to create problems where there are none, just so they have a target for their methods. Think of superluminal neutrinos, the pioneer anomaly, or the penta-quark.
So research is clearly also important if it draws attention to a problem rather than solving one. A recent example is the black hole firewall. And really, what problem did that solve?
The biggest part of research is dedicated to finding or solving problems, but that still isn’t all of it. Some of research is failed solution attempts. Failing and sharing failure is valuable not only because it can save other people’s time, but also because a failed solution to one problem can turn out to solve another problem. The post-it glue’s failure to stick was also its success. Einstein’s “blunder” eventually turned out to have its use when we discovered the universe’s expansion accelerates. Bubble wrap was conceived as washable wallpaper. Research in string theory was originally pursued to understand the strong nuclear force.Somebody else’s failure of yesterday might be your solution tomorrow.
And then there is just free-wheeling curiosity that is often a by-product of researchers trying to better understand their gadgets or models. It might or might not turn out to be useful for anything. These are failed attempts to find a problem, or solutions without a problem.
I too used to be cynical about the irrelevance of most papers and their failure to address existing problems. Now I think of them as exercises, as documentations of physicists learning or improving their methods. In fact, often these papers are exactly this: projects give to students or postdocs. Others are reports on somebody’s current interests and thoughts, or their progress in understanding particular relations that will or will not lead anywhere. They might have been out hunting and now want to show off what they found, even if it wasn’t what they were hoping for. Or their idea of a good problem might just not agree with mine.
In the long run, science is much better off with a diversity of interests than with the streamlined attack favored by the dismissive comment “Well, what problem does that solve?”