COPENHAGEN—This past week, I’ve been attending the Foundational Questions Institute conference on the nature of time, and in the coming weeks, I hope to share with you some of the mind-blowing things I’ve found out. In the meantime, there’s one question I wanted to put out there for everyone to comment on. On Wednesday, physicist Raissa D’Souza gave a talk on how complexity arises in networks, and she made a joke about the culture clash she felt when she joined the mechanical engineering department at U.C. Davis. The engineers, she said, wanted to make the world a better place; what a novel concept to a physicist!
Ever appreciative of whatever touches of humor professors put into their lectures, I chuckled. Of course physicists really do seek to make the world a better place. Raissa’s own work is a case study of that: by importing physics concepts such as phase transitions and equilibrium fluctuations into network design, researchers are figuring out to stabilize the power grid, nip epidemics in the bud, and sound the alarm bell for economic instabilities. So I thought it was actually a pretty good joke, as these things go. Later that day, I alluded to Raissa’s self-deprecation in an interview for the TV series Closer to Truth when I was asked why I found fundamental physics so worthwhile to society.
So I felt a bit let down when, over lunch yesterday, I complimented her on the joke and got the distinct impression she hadn’t meant it as a joke. We were sitting with cosmologist and blogdude Sean Carroll and science writer and blogdudess Jennifer Oullette. Saving the world? Sean said he, too, found it an alien concept. Nothing would be lost, and perhaps some scarce resources spared, if physicists all quantum-tunneled to another planet.
Call me overearnest, but I can’t bring myself to believe that physicists aren’t idealists at heart. Selfish ones would surely have chosen a more lucrative line of work. So, mainly in the hopes of prodding Sean to elaborate on his blog, I thought I’d issue a public challenge. Are physicists out to advance human knowledge or merely solve some puzzles for their own personal gratification? Does physics promote the general welfare or is it pointless? The main reason I went into both writing and science (which were originally two separate interests for me) was to do my limited part to make the world a better place. The power of physics to do good seems obvious to me. Have I bought into a myth?
It would be too easy to cite cases in which physics has contributed to the development of new technologies, so let’s assume that we are talking about pure science, without any overt attempt to invent gadgets or help educate people who do. The question is whether pure science’s intrinsic merits are enough.
The last two books I read take opposing views on this question. Thomas Kuhn’s Copernican Revolution describes how putting the sun, rather than Earth, at the center of the universe, which even Copernicus regarded as a purely esoteric matter, wound up reweaving the entire fabric of human thought. Score one for pure science. But Lewis Wolpert’s The Unnatural Nature of Science argues that science has contributed far less to technology than most people think. Science reveals subtleties of nature that otherwise escape our attention, but for that very reason, most of its findings have no consequences for daily life.
Being good empiricists, maybe we should let data settle the issue. Lots of people clearly value pure science. They read blogs, buy books, watch TV shows, visit science centers. They accord scientists a respect shown few other professions in our society. They ask burning questions whenever they find a planetary scientist in their midst. They recognize that there is more to life than the purely utilitarian. And I have found all this to be as (or more) true in remote villages as at fancy cocktail parties. We do well to be humble about how much influence pure science has on the broader culture, but not so humble that we lose sight of why we do what we do.