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This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

On intergalactic radio wave distortion




IN the last week I have been talking a lot about what I wrote here on the motives behind, and the aims of, science. One of the arguments against what I said is that, in order to obtain funding, work should have a tangible benefit to humans, as it would otherwise be a waste, or at least an unjustifiable use of, public or government funding. I by no means believe that work should not be done on clincial topics. However, I think that to deny the possibility of funding projects conducted out of simply human intrigue, the desire to answer curiosity, would be a shame and detrimental. In addition, so many human benefits have arisen indirectly from tangential topics - I gave positron emission tomography (PET) as an example in my post, and a further example presented itself to me this week as I listened to the latest Science Show on ABC Radio National. In it, they covered the Australian Prime Minister's prizes for science (a marvellous idea). The winner of the main prize itself was John O'Sullivan, who invented WiFi. WiFi is a tremendous tool and is seemingly everywhere. It assists business and communication at home and in public. Many people rely on it. But where did this come from? How did they invent it?

WiFi, it turns out, is a side-effect of astrophysics. Looking for black holes, O'Sullivan needed to develop a method to clean up intergalactic radio wave distortion. He never found any black holes, but instead designed the core of wireless networks.

My point is that in this example, in the example of PET scanning, the discovery of penicillin and many other examples, the aim of the original experiment was not focused on us. They weren't looking to design a medical scanner. Instead, they were trying to find the smallest particles. The fact that the benefit to us turned out to be so much more is in many ways coincidental. At the level of research, individual projects are only tiny steps towards bigger questions: at this level, it is not necessarily possible to see the benefit to us down the line. Does that make these tiny steps any less important? Without them, the bigger questions cannot be answered, even if the steps do not appear at the time to be relevant to that question. We need the knowledge base to be able to apply it later. To deny science 'for the sake of it' would mean we wouln't have PET scanning, WiFi or so many other bits of essential knowledge.

That said, in agreement with Beth, who commented on my last post, I wouldn't want to be the one to make the decision regarding the allocation of funding. It must indeed be a delicate and difficult balance.

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