Can you name a book that made you rethink? A song that helped you through bad times? A movie that gave you a new perspective, new hope, an idea that changed your life or that of people around you? And was it worth the price of the book, the download fee, the movie ticket? If you think of the impact it has had, does it come as a number in your currency of choice?Those of us working in basic research today are increasingly forced to justify their work by its social impact, it’s value for the society that they live in. It is a good question because scientists payed by tax money should keep in mind who they are working for. But that impact that the funding agencies are after, it is expected to come in the form of applications, something that your neighbor will eventually be able to spend money on, to keep the economic wheels turning and the gears running.
It might take centuries for today’s basic research to result in technological applications, and predicting them is more difficult than doing the research itself. The whole point of doing basic research is that its impact is unpredictable. And so this pressure to justify what we are doing is often addressed by fantastic extrapolations of today’s research, potential gadgets that might come out of it, new materials, new technologies, new services. These justification that we come up with ourselves are normally focused on material value, something that seems tangible to your national funding agency and your member of parliament who wants to be reelected.
But basic research has a long tail, and a soft one, that despite its softness has considerable impact that is often neglected. At our recent workshop for science writers, Raymond Laflamme gave us two great lectures on quantum information technology, the theory and the applications. Normally if somebody starts talking about qubits and gates, my brain switches off instantly, but amazingly enough listening to Laflamme made it sound almost comprehensible.
Here is the slide that he used to motivate the relevance of basic research (full pdf here):
Note how the arrows in the circle gradually get smaller. A good illustration for the high-risk, high impact argument. Most of what we work on in basic research will never lead anywhere, but that which does changes our societies, rewards and refuels our curiousity, then initiates a new round in the circle.
Missing in this figure though is a direct link from understanding to social impact.
New scientific insights have historically had a major impact on the vision the thinkers of the day had for the ideal society and how it was supposed to work, and they still have. Knowledge about the workings of the universe have eroded the rationale behind monarchy, strong hierarchies in general, the influence of the church, and given rise to other forms of organizations that we may call enlightened today, but that will seem archaic a thousand years from now.
The variational principle, made popular in Leibnitz’ conclusion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”, a world that must be “optimal” in some sense, has been hugely influential and eventually spun off the belief in self-organization, in the existence of an “invisible hand” that will lead societies to an optimal state, and that we better not try to outsmart. This belief is still wide-spread among today’s liberals, even though it obviously begs the questions whether what an unthinking universe optimizes is that what humans want.
The ongoing exploration of nature on large and small scales has fundamentally altered the way in which we perceive of us as special, now knowing that our solar system is but one among billions, many of which contain planets similar to our own. And the multiverse in all its multiple realizations is the maybe ultimate reduction of humanity to an accident, whereby it remains to be seen just how lucky this accident is.
That insights coming from fundamental research affect our societies long before and in many ways besides applications come along today is documented vividly by the Singularity believers who talk about the coming of artificial intelligence surpassing our own intelligence like Christians talk about the rapture. Unless you live in Silicon valley it's a fringe phenomenon, but it is vivid proof just how much ideas affect us.
Other recent developments that have been influential way beyond the scientific niches where they originated are chaos, instability, tipping points, complexity and systemic risk. And it seems to me that the awareness that uncertainty is an integral part of scientific knowledge is slowly spreading.
The connection between understanding and social impact is one you are part of every time you read a popular science piece and update your views about the world, the planet we inhabit, our place on it, and its place in the vastness of the universe. It doesn’t seem to mean all that much, all these little people with their little blogs and their little discussions, but multiply it by some hundred millions. How we think about our being part of nature affects how we organize our living together and our societies.
Downloading a Wikipedia entry of 300 kb through your home wireless: 0.01 Euro. Knowing that the universe expands and will forever continue to expand: Priceless.