Curiosity-driven research

It seems like 20th century was the golden age of science and technology. Just look at that list, so many breakthroughs in math, physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, energy, electronics, computing. Some of these include:
  • set theory, topology, abstract algebra, formal logic, incompleteness theorems, theory of computation
  • special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, fundamental interactions, electroweak interaction, nuclear fusion
  • Big Bang theory, space probes, moon landing, space station, hubble space telescope
  • DNA structure, human genome project, antibiotics, many vaccines, many drugs
  • Transistor, semiconductor, integrated circuits, MOS image sensors, CPUs, radio, TV, Internet

What about the breakthroughs in the last 30 years, 1990 onwards? There isn't any significant breakthroughs we can point to in basic sciences except for detection of gravitational waves and Higgs boson. On the applied side of things we have the human genome project and personal computing revolution we can show. We are getting comfortable and cushy alright.

The middle of 20th century was the golden age of Science Fiction. There was so much optimism about the future. Recently I re-watched Back To The Future trilogy with my kids. In the second one, they travel to the future, 2015, where they show flying cars. It was so tragicomic watching that.

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters. In 2020, we are in the golden age of viral videos (I am serious, check the link). We are brought to our knees by a pesky virus. Oh, but no need to worry, we are good at serving ads and making people click at them to buy groceries online. And we have contact tracing apps. And social networks that are amplifying ignorant views. Last night George Soros was trending on Twitter for inciting Minneapolis riots, and a significant portion of the population believes Bill Gates want to chip people, and he started Covid-19, which is by the way fake and not to be believed anyways, but then again it is better to destroy 5G towers to be sure.

I am aware that we need some time for noticing the impact of some of the work that happened in the last 10 years. (I hope the quantum computer pans out!) But still we are visibly behind, we got a lot of catching up to do. This is a very bad record, C+, at best.

What went wrong? And how can we right this?

We have been doing a lot of application and utility motivated research in the last several decades. All this application/utility inspired research depleted our basic research deposits/reserves, and our progress/returns slowed to an halt. We got so fascinated with application of techniques, that we neglected to refill our basic research deposits, and now we are in scientific debt. We don't have enough basic research deposits to leverage and apply anymore.

Many of the 20th century advances in science and technology built on the Golden Age of Physics, Chemistry, Math that came before it. Although there were necessity driven inventions accelerated by response to war, cold war, and economic development, these inventions had fully charged basic science reserves they could draw on. For example, GPS drew on atomic clocks, which drew on basic research on physics, and was motivated for testing relativity effects.

We need to fund basic research to pay our scientific debt, and build up our basic research reserves. We have been understanding to build, without replenishing our knowledge pool. It is time to build to understand, to pay our scientific debt.

Consider Pasteur's quadrant. We have been mostly doing engineering work (understanding to build) in Thomas Edison's quarter, and even that not very successfully recently. Funding agencies has been calling for use-inspired research to move one step away from application for application-sake. But that is not enough! We need to move closer to pure basic research (building to understand).

And what is wrong with fourth quadrant anyways? We should also accept some futility-inspired research. Many practical outcomes arose from theoretical math. Poor Hardy must be spinning in his grave considering how many applications number theory found. Here is a relevant presentation summarizing the ideas in a recent book: "Why greatness cannot be planned: the myth of the objective."

So here is what we should do. We should pick harder/deeper questions not driven by any immediate utility but driven by curiosity.

And there is good news. Working on basic research is not much harder than working on applied research. Applied researcher needs to jump through hoops to show novelty and distinguish from other work. If we just used the same energy instead to work on something that is inherently novel (but not necessarily practical), we would cover more distance.


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