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On Basic Science

An article on the Wall Street Journal arguing the "The Myth of Basic Science" and my response:

"It follows that there is less need for government to fund science: Industry will do this itself. Having made innovations, it will then pay for research into the principles behind them." (The Myth of Basic Science)
Will it? Why should it?

An anecdote tells how Carl Friedrich Gauss, the famous mathematician, was once given a present of tickets to a performance of Beethoven's 9th symphony. The piece required - for those times - massive effort, and it was rarely played, so such an opportunity was very rare, and valuable. In any case, so the anecdote goes, after the piece concluded, Gauss turned to his friend, looked at him quizzically and asked: "And what did they prove by this?"

Whether true or false - music is, indeed, not essential. Neither is most of math. The Greeks may have invented the steam engine, rail-tracks, high-pressure pipes, developed a sophisticated understanding of mathematics up to early integral calculus or combinatorics, measured the size of the earth or sensibly discussed the nature of the solar system, but it was the Roman civilization that successfully span a millenium in the West Roman empire, and another one in the East Roman empire (which may have been Greek in ethnicity, but in essential aspects a continuation of Roman statecraft).

The Roman civilization did not require sophisticated general science of the Greek kind. It just relied on the practical, but effective 3 C's: Centurions, Courts and Concrete - in other words, military, jurisdiction and city-building skills. Honing these was enough to dominate civilization in the Mediterranean for essentially two millenia. No higher science was effectively needed.

Yes, one can get away with local improvements, continuous trial and error to further oneself and survive. One can discover the refrigerator without theory, supraconductivity by chance, possibly even radio transmission, and one might potentially be able to realize low-orbit satellites at some point (not the sophistication of a "New Horizons"-mission, of course, but that's not needed, economically speaking) - even the notorious correction factor 2 that the highly "abstract" theory of General Relativity requires for GPS to work correctly might have been discovered by trial and error, with the responsible engineers wondering where such a surprising integer factor may have come from, before they return to their daily grind.

Zuse invented the computer requiring little foundational knowledge, so this allows one to dismiss that other major players in the game, Turing and von Neumann, strong in the foundations of science, would have been necessary. Some exotic, hard-to-discover results might include the Laser, which may have been inaccessible for a long time without theoretical guidance, or the Hologram, and similarly, classical and quantum cryptography. But if we dismiss these as exotic and dispensable, yes, who knows, perhaps it is true that incremental development might have got us a great deal of what makes our life so much more comfortable than our ancestors. After all, so is suggested biological evolution got us where we are, to great effect, without requiring a centralized, conscious, theoretically educated intelligence behind it.

So, the question that remains is about credit assignment. How much credit should be given to foundational science in taking a role in our innovation? Is innovation in itself at all a value, or only insofar it secures our economical growth? And of this, how much is due to foundational science?

Above arguments might indicate that one could imagine an alternative world in which (even possibly aggressive) incremental research would have been sufficient to achieve large parts of our technological car park. No Galilei, no Newton, no Bohr necessary, and who would possibly need a Dirac equation? Edison instead of Tesla, Marconi mightn't have needed Maxwell. Euler useless (he couldn't even provide Frederick the Great with a working garden fountain), Leibniz should have been sticking to building calculators, Einstein to building refrigerators (he did!), and Feynman to repairing radios or developing nuclear bomb technology.

All of that foundational science investigated investigated by these Grandees of science might well have been unnecessary for our progress. So might be music. So might be art. So is any kind of non-economically relevant activity. And yet, may it not be that it was the fascination of these "big-picture" theories that would attract the most capable minds to explore possibility to make the hitherto impossible possible?

And, also, when they are being educated in their craft, provide them with a mental map that allows them to relate things to each other in a structured way, rather than cobble together piecewise isolated chunks of knowledge, only waiting patiently in the toolbox to be applied at the opportune moment, in the carefully honed, but purely practical expertise of a cathedral builder?

It is possible to move around from spot to spot, without much knowledge of how places fit together and yet reach one's goals. We could plod, ant-like, our eyes always cast to the ground just in front of us, step by step, never probing the horizon, never raising our gaze to the sky. Ant-like, our society may get very far with this. It, quite possibly, may be economically competitive, powerful, persistent, dominating, requiring nothing more than small, local, incremental knowledge enhancements for its long-term success; ant-colony like; evolution-like.

It might be possible to sail the seas of available technology (to metaphorize one argument of the article), without a map, without an understanding of the laws of navigation, without insight into latitude, nor longitude, just hopping from island to island of knowledge, just driven by luck, enterprising boldness, intuition and memory, and no overarching principle. In the realm of knowledge, rather than the sea, this - so the article suggests - might be so effective that a systematic overview and unification would not add much to it.

If the incremental, evolutionary approach would work satisfactorily - why should, then, industry pay for anything more? It rarely invests into systematic rewrites of legacy code which would directly improve its operational capabilities - and we expect it to pay for scientific clairvoyance gained by clarifying fundamental principles? Which, moreover, would render the seas of knowledge far more navigable to all its competitors? With exception of the very particular and limited cases of industries in a state of economical and intellectual abundance, we can not expect this to happen.

The question that we therefore have to ask is: this "knowledge island hopping", eyes cast to the ground - is it really what we want: to willingly forgo what makes us human: the ability to raise our gaze to the sky and have the select ones of us who turn out to have the ability to see far, discover and tell us others, who don't, about the stars?

And let them, the stars, help us find our direction, rather than the waves and bubbles of ephemeral fashion which come and go as they please, without sense, without bearing?

I conclude by adapting a saying by Galilei - I do not feel obliged to believe that, given evolution has, through a long and strenuous process, endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect, we should intend to forgo their use, just to blindly play out the evolutionary game on a higher level, without at least striving for more.

Feel free to correct me about mistakes or omissions in attribution.


Last changed at Tue Feb 14 21:17:54 2017 by D. Polani