May 29, 2016
We are curious because curiosity gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage: curious people knew where there were dangers, where to find food, where to find shelter. A curious person held a branch on fire rather than running away from it – not because she or he guessed it could come useful for cooking, for heating, or as a weapon or a source of energy – but because they were intensely curious about it. It’s our most useful instinct.
Curiosity-led scientific research is the collective embodiment of human curiosity. It is helping us to survive and develop as a species. The moment we stop doing it will be the beginning of the end for our species.
We must fight to enshrine social support for curiosity-driven research. That’s research we do because we want to know, not because we want to achieve something. That’s the type of research that will save our civilisation from global warming, from hurtling meteorites, from dangerous microbes – from everything that, without our curiosity, we would never even have known about.
July 1, 2009
The fact that Science thrives precisely when scientists are left alone must be one of the most annoying aspects of modern society for politicians to contemplate – especially when one considers how expensive it is. The temptation to tell scientists exaclty what they ought to be doing with the taxpayer’s money must be really strong (and understandable). So it is good that the Commons Science and Technology select committee has returned to public life in the UK. Hopefully it will act as a check on the power of government over the scientific community in this country.
April 23, 2009
In a letter published in this week’s issue of Nature, Christian Kloc relates some of his experience over the years as a crystal grower. He states
Of the laboratories where I have worked and grown crystals over the past 30 years, not one is growing crystals today.
Barring the possibility that the author of the letter actually jinx’s the labs where he works, 😉 the sentence is a pretty harsh indictment, but one that does not surprise me. Indeed, crystal growing (that is, the fabrication in the laboratory of large, near-perfect crystals of the materials that are of interest to current condensed matter research) is a delicate, unpredictable, and relatively costly enterprise.
I emphasize the word ‘relatively’ because growing crystals is not nearly as costly as other, much larger endeavors, such as building and operating large-scale facilities (I should know that, since I work at one). However those are carried out by governments, not universities. Crystal-growing is at the upper end of what, say, a Physics department of a medium-sized university could afford. Moreover I understand (though note this is second-hand knowledge – I am a theorist, after all) that it is a bit of an art form, where breakthroughs are often serendipitous and often a program leads to nothing after much hard work. So in some sense I guess one could use crystal growing as a measure the level of commitment of a country to genuinely novel condensed matter physics research.
If Christian Kloc‘s experience is anything to go by, it looks like many future breakthroughs will come not from Europe or America, but from Asia. Indeed, this is already happening, as the discovery of the pnictide superconductors attests. Ultimately the problem lies, I think, with the pressure university-based academics are put under to obtain concrete results on a fairly short time scale and within rather tight budgets. Perhaps the solution to the problem in the Western countries is for the large facilities to start growing their crystals themselves…
April 14, 2009
A lot of the really interesting phenomena in Condensed Matter Physics only take place at very low temperatures, e.g. superconductivity. This often limits their usefulness, as cryogenic equipment (necessary to achieve such low temperatures) is costly and bulky. THz switching using superocnductors is great for some very specialised applications, but it is not going to give us desktop computers operating at THz speed (=1000 GHz) if that requires the computer in question to be permanently connected to a tank of liquid Helium. But what if every chip had its own, micron-sized cooling devices, so that only the microscopic circuitry itself were at such low temperatures? DARPA believe that such microcryocooling technologies are worth pursuing, and we agree (though for very different reasons!)