But what’s the use of it?


We live in exciting times. As a physicist returning to his roots, I am in awe of the progress made in the detection of gravitational waves. Not only is this empirical verification of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, it is also opening a new field of astronomy with the potential to look further back into the history of the univesre than ever before.
When I can, I attend public talks on the subject, often delivered by physicists who have dedicated much of their careers working collaboratively to do what Einstein predicted as impossible 100 years ago. So I’m always disappointed when at questions time, someone asks, what use is it? By this, they usually are looking for short term spin off technology (of which there many) and at worse the short term “fiscal benefit” of the research.

I find myself biting my lip as the speaker explains some of the short term spin offs and recall the rumoured exchange between Micheal Faraday and Gladstone (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) in the 1850s. Upon demonstrating the links between electricity and magnetism, Gladstone asked, “but what’s the use of it?”. Faraday’s response, variously reported, was “I know not, but one day Sir, you may tax it”. Faraday’s discoveries of course lead to the development of domestic electricity industry, and we still suffer the same lack of vision in our political classes today.

It’s debatable that the human race has been so successful in surviving and adapting to changes in the environment because of our quality of “curiosity”. The instinct to seek knowledge for knowledge sake has opened opportunities for us to survive and prosper.

But I’ll continue to bite my lip on these occasions even though I am tempted to ask “what use were sub-prime mortgages” or “The Royal Bank of Scotland”. At least blue sky research doesn’t actively destroy the economy.