Following up on the theme of my last post, there’s an even larger issue about pure vs. applied science: the best research is “pure” research, often with no practical goal in mind. As I pointed out in my book Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs, it turns out that the most important discoveries in science come from “pure” research with no obvious goal. In fact, a lot of important discoveries are made by accident, or “serendipity”.
Most people think that science is about planning your research carefully to achieve some specific goal. They are often not tolerant about “pure research” that doesn’t have a specific conclusion in mind, but is focused on finding out general facts about nature, whether or not they have practical uses. Even the scientific funding agencies operate this way, where they tend to reward research that is conventional and “more of the same,” and seldom fund research that is a speculative gamble. Again and again, talking heads on TV or Congressmen ridicule “pure research” which doesn’t have a specific practical goal or application. Occasionally, narrow-minded and poorly educated people manage to interfere with the well-established scientific review process and shut down research they don’t like (even though it was approved by established scientists).
The sad irony of this entire argument that “science must be practical and useful” is that most of the greatest discoveries in science happen by accident. More often than not, scientists who find a crucial new piece of evidence were not looking for it, but looking for something else, and make their great discovery without planning to. The term “serendipity” was describes this phenomenon. It comes from an old Persian tale of the “Three Princes of Serendip” who made discoveries unexpectedly. However, in the case of science, serendipity works most often when the researcher is prepared to see the implications of some new, unexpected development. As Louis Pasteur put it, “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
Examples of accidental discoveries in science are legion, especially in chemistry. Alfred Nobel accidentally mixed nitroglycerin and collodium (“gun cotton”) and discovered gelignite, the key ingredient for his development of TNT. Hans Von Pechmann accidentally discovered polyethylene in 1898. Silly Putty, Teflon, Superglue, Scotchgard, and Rayon were all accidents, as was the discovery of the elements helium and iodine. Among drugs, penicillin, laughing gas, Minoxidil for hair loss, the Pill, and LSD were all discovered by accident. Viagra was originally developed to treat blood pressure, not impotence. Most of the great discoveries in physics and astronomy were unexpected, including the planet Uranus, infrared radiation, superconductivity, electromagnetism, X-rays, and many others. The cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang was discovered by two Bell lab engineers who were trying to eliminate the noise from their newly developed microwave antennas. Among practical inventions, inkjet printers, corn flakes, safety glass, Corningware, and the vulcanization of rubber were all accidents. Percy Spencer accidentally discovered the principle of microwave ovens while testing a magnetron for radar sets, and he found that the candy bar in his lab coat pocket had melted.
Likewise, geologists often find things they are not looking for. In 1855, Pratt and Airy were doing routine surveying for the British government in northern India. They noticed that the plumb line under the surveying tripod was not as gravitationally attracted to the Himalayas as they had expected, and eventually discovered the evidence for the deep crustal roots of mountains like the Himalayas. The marine geologists who mapped the magnetic anomalies on the seafloor were not looking for the crucial evidence that proved plate tectonics, but were simply doing routine data collection of magnetic, bathymetric, and oceanographic data as their ships undertook regularly scheduled voyages of discovery. Maurice Ewing, the founder of Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory (now Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) of Columbia University, had a standing order that each ship would take a deep-sea core at the end of the day, no matter where they were—and many of those cores turned out to have crucial evidence for the history of oceans and climates and the evolution of life.
And the discovery of the iridium layer that led to the asteroid extinction hypothesis of the terminal Cretaceous extinction was purely accidental. Walter Alvarez was simply trying to figure out how long the mass extinction might have lasted, and he and his physicist father Luis Alvarez thought measuring the iridum from the rain of cosmic dust would tell them if the sedimentation rate was fast or slow. Instead, the iridium levels were so high that they suggested an extraterrestrial source—and a scientific breakthrough occurred that has been reverberating for 30 years now.
Such examples could be cited ad infinitum, but the point is clear: nature is not always predictable, and scientific research cannot be restricted to straightforward results that were expected when the study began. Shortsighted people like the right-wing radio hosts and the Congressmen who ridicule pure research must not be allowed to destroy our scientific curiosity and creativity, or our scientific discoveries would come to an end. Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny …’“
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