Why do we do science?

First I’d like to say that I’m not a native English speaker and that I may make many mistakes writing in English, both spelling and grammar, thus I’d like to apologise in advance for it. However as I think that science communication should reach to the largest possible number of people, I’ve decided to write first in Spanish (my mother tongue) and then in (at least understandable) English. I hope you excuse my mistakes and enjoy the reading.

I have always liked reading and learning about the history of science, more concretely about the history of Physics, in fact I’m physicist; at least that is what it is said in the certificate I received from my university after paying the appropriate taxes. After finishing the degree I didn’t have the chance to continue a research career but that didn’t stop me from keeping my interest in Physics (with capital letters!).

Among the aspects that I most like from the history of science, and about the history of Physics in particular, is to look for the original papers that gave rise to the biggest revolutions in the understanding of nature and the impact these discoveries had in our quality of life.

At the same time, I found interesting the lack of interest about science that the general public has. I have heard too many times things like, is that thing useful for me? Behind this question there is a large unawareness of the reality we live in. What would have happened if, by the end of the 1850 decade, Robert Bunsen had not became interested in the possibility of analysing salts according to the colours they have when burnt and Kirchhoff had not became interested in spectral analysis [1]? The answer is that probably the discoveries that happened after it and that gave rise to the birth of Quantum Physics, what was followed by the study of the subatomic levels of matter, what gave rise to the discovery and study of semiconductors that lead to thousands of technology developments like the computer I’m using to write these lines (a Mac Book Pro, for your information) would not have happened. I also wonder what would have happened if after the discovery of the particles that matter is made of like hadrons and leptons, which is basically another way of naming the protons, neutrons and electrons that we all know, it hadn’t existed the curiosity to ‘see’ it there was something else. The answer is that, among other things, the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (also known as CERN. Yes, the one of the Higgs boson and the black holes that will destroy our world, hahaha) had never been established and it had never existed the need to develop advance control systems for the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) where in May 1973 Beck and Stumpe [2], from the control group, proposed to use tactile technology for it, which is the same technology that almost all of us have in our smartphones and tablets to send whatsapps and play to solitaire game (at least this is what I mostly do with with my iPhone and iPad. Is it too obvious that I’m addict to Apple things? Another example, and this is the last one for now, is that what would have happened if due to the need of exchanging the data generated in the CERN accelerators, mainly the LEP at that time (Large Electron Positron Collider), between European and US researchers, Berners Lee in 1983 [3] had not made the first proposal for the World Wide Web and that he decided that it was developed for the benefit of all mankind. The answer is that none of you would be reading this, neither this nor anything that you get after duly paying your internet service provider every month (I wonder if this is what Berners-Lee was thinking about when he decided to yield the property rights to the benefit of mankind). In summary, either directly or indirectly science, an in particular research in pure science, has always been done with two purposes in mind, a main and a secondary purpose.

The main purpose: to widen the human knowledge. Human beings are curious by nature and all of us (even those who say the opposite) need to know. I don’t know anybody yet who has questioned himself something like, why…? Or that has never experimented, even unconsciously, in the same manner that scientists do. If you don’t believe me, try the next experiment: set up a fire and put your hand in it. When you are back from the hospital, set a fire again and repeat the experiment. Why don’t you do it? Because you have done the same that any scientist does, you have experimented and drawn conclusions from the experiment. The only difference between you and the poor fellows from CSIC (Spanish science research institution) is that they perform experiments at another level because they have already gone through the phase where they knew that the fire burns and need to go beyond it. They ask themselves about what the fire is made of and what is the mechanism that makes it burn. Furthermore, they ask themselves why we feel that the fire burn and cold water refreshes us. Another difference is that probably you earn more money than the poor CSIC fellows, but that is another story.

The secondary purpose, which actually is more important to all of us, even for scientists but it is not why scientists research, is to enhance the quality of our lives. Either in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology or Geology, etcetera, pure research has a strong component of applied research as we’ve seen in the examples of the tactile screens or the web. If not, ask Faraday when, according to the legend, in 1831 after a conference about the dynamo he had invented, the then Minister of Finance asked him ‘what is the practical value of electricity’. Faraday’s answer was: ‘One day sir, you may tax it’. How right he was! [4].

As the great Richard P. Feynman said, ‘Physics is like sex, sure it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it’. Replace Physics by Science and the result is the same. Each one may draw his / her own conclusions.

Finally, I recommend you that because Bunsen and Kirchhoff worried about researching something that finally gave rise to computers, that because Beck and Stumpe worried about developing tactile screes and that because Berners-Lee worried about developing the web to make science advance, you worry about everything they gave us and search the web for a while and learn something about science. There hundreds of thousands of websites and blogs where science communication (by the way, science communication was started by Faraday with his conferences and that is why he is considered as the first science communicator) is very well explained and I’m sure you find out things that you never had thought you may be interested and that maybe will inspire you.

By the moment, I think I will stop writing and start looking for a website where maybe I find something interesting to write about next time.


[1] Historia de la Física Cuántica. José Manuel Sánchez Ron. 2ª Edición. 2005

[2] http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/cern/42092

[3] http://home.web.cern.ch/about/birth-web

[4] http://recuerdosdepandora.com/ciencia/fisica/para-que-vale-la-electricidad/

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