Science and Mr. Cranky-Pants

One day, not too long ago, I met a scrooge of a man, but instead of Christmas he seemed to have a hearty dislike of science and basic research. I don’t think it was based on being religous and creationist, just grumpy. I was sitting in a cafe reading on my iPad, he sitting nearby. He was just looking about and curiously asked me about my iPad, what did I do with it or was it simply a toy?

I said, no it wasn’t just a toy, I use my iPad like a computer and use it for many things related to my work. “Oh, and what do you do?” he asked. I told him, I am an astronomer researching the physics of stars. At that point, the cafe became dark and chilly and the man looked like he was about to jump up and proclaim “bah humbug.” Instead, he snickered and asked what’s the use of doing that?

What is the use of stellar physics? It is a form of basic science, understanding the building blocks of the universe, how life can exist about the Sun and other stars. It increases our collective knowledge, and helps us find our place in the universe. Indirectly, it helps spawn new technology and provides a venue for general science education.

My response illicitted nothing but another snicker, and the comment that he hoped his tax dollars didn’t help fund my research. It was my turn to ask why.

He said that tax money should be spent on doing useful research only, but that was only his opinion, as if to excuse his accusation that I am wasting my time and his money. But, understanding stars helps us understand x-rays, lasers and so on. We can observe x-rays from the Sun and other stars and by understanding how the x-rays are generated in better detail we can transfer that knowledge to medical physics, etc. Without basic research by Einstein, lasers might not have been invented and we might not have dvd players, precision laser cutting and welding nor laser pointers that we use to annoy cats, just to name a few.

I don’t know why I was surprised, but the man proceeded to explain that the Sun does not have x-rays, for which I had to convince him otherwise, and that his opinion was based on him being a skeptic and that he paid precious money in taxes. Money too precious to be wasted on such frivolousness. At this point he seemed more like Scrooge or maybe Gollum.

I wish I could have changed the man’s opinion, but I think his head was deeply buried in the sand or possibly somewhere else and no contrary opinion could pierce that thick skull. I would call him a luddite but that might insult luddites. Maybe, if I could summon three ghosts to visit in one night, maybe Yuri’s night, that might change his perspective. One could be the ghost of Isaac Newton, who could show him the basis of curiosity and the power of mathematics. The ghost of science present could Charles Townes, who co-invented the laser, who could show him how he benefits from basic science no matter how obscure. The ghost of science future could be someone with lots of technological gadgets, that are all broken and no one knows how to fix, suffers from hunger because global warming has decimated farming, is poorer because the ghost has no usable skills for which to earn a living and suffering from serious case of stupid caused by too much reality television and not enough reality. Apologies to Charles Dickens for my poor analogy and to Margaret Atwood if I copied some of her themes from her compelling Massey Lectures.

I was shocked by the man’s sentiment and ignorance. But, it seems to be a growing sentiment. Congressmen in the US questioning the role of the National Science Foundation, as if they should decide which research should be funded. The Canadian government changing the role of the National Research Council from funding science to pursuing only economical technologies, trading basic research for get rich quick technologies and hoping for another BlackBerry... but maybe not Nortel. There are too many attacks on basic science these days, sometimes in the name of economic hardships, sometimes in the time of the taxpayer but rarely in the name of common sense.

This is ironic. Basic science has powered much economic development since the second World War. In 1945, the report “Science: the Endless Frontier” led to the creation of the National Science Foundation to promote and fund basic and applied research. It was recognized that science would help drive economic growth and development. And this is true today. Is it coincidence that Silicon Valley and many other tech hubs are situated near prominent research universities? Basic research drives technology innovations, and it is not easy to predict which research will lead to winners. The time scale from basic research to markets can be decades, maybe more, and can build ideas from many disciplines. An election cycle is simply too short of a time.

It is a tough question how much funding science should get and what research projects should share in the funding but I lament how science appears to be perceived more and more as a waste. But, one can hope that this attitude is the exception and not the norm.