Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What good is astronomy research?

One of the most common questions we astronomers are asked about our research is, "What good is it?" What will we learn from our research that will impact those of us here on the Earth? How can studying black holes help to cure cancer or reduce poverty? These questions are, in some sense, trick questions. The questioner thinks they know the answer, which makes constructing a cogent answer all the harder.

The truth is that "pure" research rarely has an immediate return. But even the most esoteric research can pay off in ways that the researchers could never have imagined. During last weekend's Board of Visitors meeting at McDonald Observatory, Development Officer Joel Barna talked about a few of these unexpected payoffs.

Perhaps the most profound, in my opinion, is that of electricity. Humans had studied electricity for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the 18th and 19th centuries that the studies of electricity became quite intense. Electrical researchers such as Franklin, Faraday, Volta, Ohm, and many other familiar names worked on electrical theory and experiments, culminating in Maxwell's Equations, four equations that describe the properties of electricity and magnetism that are still used today. These equations were settled in their current form in 1873.

Along the way to the production of Maxwell's Equations, batteries, electrical circuits, and even electrical motors were invented, but these found little practical use. Electricity was an esoteric, albeit fertile, area of physics research, but it had almost no impact on the average human until the 1850s, when Samuel Morse perfected an invention known as the telegraph, which allowed information to be sent over wires. Within 10 years, telegraph wires criss-crossed the continent. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for a telephone. A few years later, Edison invented the light bulb. The rest, as they say, is history. For nearly two hundred years, the science of electricity had been highly esoteric, and over a short two decades it made the leap to the most practical of physical sciences.

Another example involves Albert Einstein. His General Theory of Relativity remains one of the most enigmatic and obscure physical theories, with only a handful of people who seem to be able to grasp its full import. Tests of General Relativity still win Nobel Prizes. One test of General Relativity in 1977 involved the launch of a satellite called Navigation Technology Satellite 2, which was a forerunner of the modern Global Positioning Satellite system. This satellite had an atomic (cesium) clock that was observed to record a slightly different time than an Earth-bound clock, proving general relativity's predictions for the change of time in a gravitational field. The test also showed that general relativity had to be taken into account in navigational systems like the GPS. Without it, after one day positional errors would be as large as two kilometers! So, though Einstein never worked on satellite navigation, without his research into general relativity, our modern GPS systems would not function.

A last example Barna gave involved the research into quantum mechanics by Paul Dirac in 1928. Dirac's equations predicted the existence of a particle with the mass of an electron but with the opposite charge, what we now call a positron. In fact, Dirac's equations show that every particle has an "opposite" particle, what we now call antimatter. Although science fiction has made plenty of use of antimatter, it appeared to have little practical use at first. But, in the 1950s, several groups of scientists learned how to create and use positrons for medical imaging. Positron Emission Tomography (or PET scans) are now used quite commonly for diagnosing cancers and studying brain functions. I suspect that none of the quantum physicists of the 1920s and 1930s considered any such application of their work.

The point is that research, like astronomy research, doesn't always pay off right away. It can be decades, even generations, before applications of what seems to be "pure" research can be found. And those applications are often vastly different from what the original scientists could ever have imagined. Do you think that Volta ever thought that his pile of zinc and copper disks separated by brine-soaked strips of cloth would eventually lead to the modern batteries that allow humans to speak to each other over thousands of miles via wireless cellphones? Or Isaac Newton imagining how his work on optics could lead to modern semiconductor lithography?

I cannot promise that my work on white dwarfs will ever lead to a stunning advance in food production, or to a new source of green energy. But after 200 years of brewing, who can say what today's astronomy research may lead to? So, before you lambast your friendly neighborhood astronomer for not being able to solve all the world's ills, consider where we as a species may be a few centuries down the road, and consider if astronomical science may have any bearing on that future. I cannot predict which of today's discoveries will impact that future, but I'm willing to bet that some astronomer's work will.

1 comment:

  1. Hello.

    I stumbled across this post doing another search and thought I'd point you to a resource along similar lines which I have written:
    The Cosmos In Your Pocket: How Cosmological Science Became Earth Technology