Friday, May 26, 2023

There are so many problems in the world, why bother exploring the Universe?

Undoubtedly, our world is riddled with a multitude of challenges that demand our immediate attention. From rampant illnesses and injustices to warfare, starvation, impoverishment, and pollution, humanity faces an array of daunting issues in the 21st century. Combating these global crises requires a substantial allocation of our collective resources, be it climate change, pandemics, or energy and water shortages. These problems will not resolve themselves, but rely on the collaborative efforts of humankind.

In light of these pressing matters, one might question the value of scientific research that does not directly address these crises. Although captivating and insightful, images from the James Webb Space Telescope and the fields of astronomy and astrophysics do little to curb the rising sea levels. Is it justifiable to invest billions of dollars in exploring the universe when our own planet is in dire need of solutions?

This query has been raised numerous times throughout history, and it is essential to understand the broader implications of such research. When we scrutinize the universe through scientific inquiry and consider the information garnered from various experiments and observations, we engage in "basic research." The driving force behind this type of research is often pure curiosity, as researchers seek to uncover the unknown by examining the cosmos scientifically.

If satisfying our inquisitiveness were the sole benefit of these endeavors, it might be reasonable to deem them a frivolous expenditure of resources, offering no practical application to the pressing issues society faces. Acquiring knowledge for its own sake, while intellectually commendable, seemingly provides no immediate or long-term assistance to humanity.

However, a closer examination of basic research reveals that it does, in fact, contribute significantly to our species in extraordinary ways. The pursuit of knowledge, even if not directly related to current challenges, often leads to serendipitous discoveries and innovations that transform our lives. Technological advancements and breakthroughs in various fields have frequently stemmed from seemingly unrelated research, ultimately benefiting humanity in unforeseen ways.

Moreover, basic research inspires and cultivates a culture of curiosity, innovation, and critical thinking. It challenges our perspectives and expands our understanding of the universe, which in turn fosters a more informed and adaptable society. This intellectual growth is instrumental in addressing the complex issues we face today and those that will inevitably emerge in the future.

In conclusion, while it may be tempting to question the value of scientific research unrelated to immediate crises, it is crucial to recognize the broader implications and potential benefits of such pursuits. Basic research not only enriches our understanding of the cosmos but also inadvertently leads to life-changing advancements and fosters a progressive mindset that is essential for tackling the myriad challenges our world faces. Investing in the exploration of the unknown is not a luxury but a necessity for the continued growth and betterment of humanity.

Written by Chatsonic

One of the most criticized experiments in the world today is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. It has cost humanity over ten billion dollars to build and has ever-increasing energy costs to keep it operational. It has found the Higgs boson and nothing else that had not been discovered before, although it has measured those previously discovered particles in previously unseen abundances, composite configurations, and with greater precision than ever before.

But even if the LHC never makes another discovery, it would be false to say that it has not already benefited humanity enormously. From detector technology to precisely controlled high-field electromagnets to advances in data handling and throughput to information sharing, a huge number of very practical endeavors advance every time we push the frontiers of particle physics. The World Wide Web itself was invented at CERN to help address some of these concerns more than 30 years ago. The technological advances we are making today-the same advances that enable modern experiments at the LHC-will undoubtedly pay practical dividends in the years and decades to come.

In the realm of spaceflight, many anti-poverty workers have been among the biggest critics of the Apollo program. "With so much suffering on Earth," is the question most frequently asked, "why should we invest in going to the Moon-something with no immediate practical benefit to those most in need on our planet?"

The question had a kernel of truth. There were and still are problems here on Earth-war, hunger, inequality, injustice, pollution, etc.-that going to the Moon would not and did not address at all. Although it might be interesting from a scientific point of view to send humans to the Moon, investigate the lunar surface, install scientifically valuable equipment there, conduct experiments and bring back samples to Earth, it is not as if the Apollo program helped us solve problems here on Earth.

Yet the Apollo program led to a huge number of useful technologies whose economic benefit (what investors call ROI: return on investment) far exceeded the cumulative amount spent on it. When you talk to people about the spin-off technologies of the Apollo program, they usually point to Teflon and the space pen, but a huge number of everyday technologies that have improved our lives are the direct legacies of that investment. We could not have predicted them in advance, but here is only a partial list of technology derived from the Apollo program:

  • freeze-dried foods,
  • cooling suits (from race car drivers to sick people),
  • recycling of body fluids (improved kidney dialysis),
  • improved foam insulation (prevents pipes from freezing),
  • fireproof fabrics (revolutionized firefighting equipment),
  • improved water purification,
  • metalized foil insulation (for home heating/cooling efficiency),
  • hazardous gas monitoring,
  • domes/roofs for stadiums,
  • simulated earthquake and stress test improvements,
  • solar panels,
  • the automatic implantable defibrillator,
  • as well as a host of others.

Of course, there is never a guarantee that what we will find will be useful down the road, and it is often impossible to predict what kinds of practical applications will arise whenever we observe the Universe in ways never seen before. But often, that is where the greatest advances of all are waiting.

When we discovered electromagnetism, we had no way of knowing that it would lead to radio, television and the entire telecommunications industry. When we discovered quantum mechanics, we had no way of knowing that it would lead to the transistor, the electronic computer and all modern electronics. When we discovered nuclear physics, we could not have imagined that it would lead to medical cancer therapies and diagnostic tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Undoubtedly, although it may be difficult to predict what they will be, investing in basic research at the frontiers of science is bound to pay off in the future in ways virtually unimaginable today.

Yet, there is another reason, completely unrelated to any downstream technological benefits that may accrue from investing in science, why we should pursue such ends: all of society benefits when we are collectively inspired. We cannot spend all our time and resources thinking exclusively about mundane, terrestrial concerns, as events on Earth often divide us and pit us against each other. A glance at the depths of space always reminds us of the same great truth: there is an extraordinary and vast Universe out there, and in all of it, Earth is the only place we have ever found friendly to life forms like us.

But there is another truth that gets at a different aspect of the problem-an aspect that is implied but never stated-that is important to discuss: if we stopped funding basic research and instead devoted those resources to the immediate problems we deem "most important," those paltry scientific investments, even if redirected, would be woefully inadequate to solve the ongoing problems.

Climate change is a multi-billion dollar problem that requires collective action on a global scale to solve. World hunger, poverty, inequality, and pandemic prevention all require additional investment and, again, global coordination, running into hundreds of billions of dollars to adequately address. Nuclear fusion, a scientific endeavor that, if implemented in a scalable and widely deployable way, would solve the energy and climate crises in one fell swoop, receives less funding, annually, than peanut subsidies in the United States.

The reality is that there are many, many worthy endeavors to invest in to increase the collective good for humanity in the world, both in the short and long term. There are many areas of possible investment, but the idea that it would be beneficial for humanity to invest less in basic research, the engine of all future innovation and one of the few social investments that has historically always produced returns greater than the amounts invested is an unfounded idea with a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Yet, the main reason for continuing to explore the Universe is not because it is profitable, nor because it is beneficial, nor because it is inspiring, although in fact it is all three of these things. The reason we explore the Universe is because it is there and because we can, and our quest for knowledge beyond the current frontiers is what compels us to carry on the collective effort of human civilization. In a sense, we are nothing more than specialized apes: capable of altering the world in profound ways, but not yet wise enough to stop plundering the very resources we need to ensure a future in which humanity can thrive sustainably.

Prescribing cures for all the problems that plague our species and our planet is beyond the scope of this article, but one thing is certain: if we stop investing in basic research that takes us beyond known frontiers, we will never achieve the lofty goals that represent the shared dreams of our ancestors, contemporaries and descendants.

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