chemical_composition_universe

Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Wizard of Time 3 (The Edge of Eternity) is finally off to the editor and proofer. Hopefully I will be able to have it out by the beginning of May.

Now that my brain is free from figuring out the intricacies of time paradoxes I’ve had a few minutes to think about other things, in particular the announcement last week that scientists in Antarctica had discovered what they believe to be observable proof of gravitational waves during the ultra brief inflationary period of the Big Bang. There is a very easy to follow overview of the science by Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait that explains the importance of it.

This got me contemplating not the origins of the universe, but the importance of the science that looks for the origins of the universe. Fundamental science, or pure science, seeks not to find scientific solutions to problems, but rather to understand the essential aspects of, and rules governing, the universe.

There are those, mostly economic Libertarians, who will argue that pure science is  waste of public funds and that scientific advancement progressed perfectly fine under hobby scientists and the free market investment of funds in scientific solutions to specific problems. There is a succinct summation of this notion here.

It is a well presented argument, but seems intellectually incomplete. The examples given do show a great advancement from science funded by private individuals and companies in the past. However, I cannot fathom a free market scenario that would lead to the investment in pure science endeavors like the Large Hadron Collider or the  BICEP2 facility in Antarctica that made the recent discovery of gravity waves. Investors in a free market system expect a return on that investment. Money spent looking to examine how various molecules affect cancer growths may lead to new treatments and therapies that in turn could provide a profitable return for the investment. No one is likely to make money from the discovery the Higgs Boson or by proving the inflationary theory of the Big Bang.

Many people will see this as a proof that such research, almost entirely funded by government tax dollars, does not actually benefit society at large and is therefore as clear waste of public funds. If there is no practical application for the scientific knowledge gained from the research, no way to monetize the discovery, then there is no way for it to benefit humanity. The antipode argument to this free market position would be not that we should cease taxing citizens to fund scientific research, but that we should spend this tax revenue on concrete social welfare programs to help people directly; such as education, poverty relief, and healthcare.

I disagree with both of these arguments. simply because we spend our collectively collected funds on pure science doesn’t preclude being able to use similar monies to help those less fortunate within our society. And the collective investment in pure science does benefit our society enough to justify the expense and the personal loss of income from the imposed taxes. In the example of cancer research, while drug companies invest billions in the attempt to discover new molecules that can provide life saving treatment, the majority of the money being spent to investigate and reveal the biological nature of cancer itself comes from government grants. This seems to me a good balance of use of our collective resources. The pure science research in to the causes and processes of different cancers would not likely return a profit for a corporation (what could they patent?), while the costs of discovering and researching new treatments can prove prohibitively costly for government programs.

Regardless of these economic rationalizations, the main reason I am thrilled by the use of public monies to probe the mysteries of the universe is because the results of these discoveries, like those provided by CERN or the Mars rover Opportunity, or the Hubble Space Telescope, give us insight into how our universe came to exist, what it’s existence looked like in the past, and what it’s existence may look like in the far future. Moreover, and maybe more importantly, these pure science projects give us a deeper understanding of our place in the universe. Astrophysicists work to discover how our universe came into being as evolutionary biologists and anthropologists work to learn how humans came into being even as neurologists seek to discover how we manage to be aware that we are beings in an ever expanding universe.

The ongoing scientific project to understand how the universe works and why it works the way it does is not merely a means of advancing different technologies and practical engineering applications, it is a means of assuaging the near mystic drive of humans to explore and understand our surroundings; whether to look over the next mountaintop to see what the neighboring valley might hold, or to  peak into our neighboring star systems in the hopes of discovering a world similar to our own and, hopefully, that we share our ever-expanding universe with someone else. The deeper our understanding of the universe, the deeper our understanding of ourselves, and the depth of that self-knowledge will inevitably inform our lives and our choices on this small, planetary refuge of life we call home.

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