This week at work, we’re interviewing candidates for the job that I’m leaving. And one of the questions that came up was so simple and so fundamental to all that we do here that I thought I would ask it to you:
With all the problems in the world — economic, political, social, and military — what’s the point of spending money on basic science? For example, why spend money looking for gravitational waves, the Higgs boson, or life on Mars?
Yes, these things are expensive. The total cost of LISA — the space antenna that will look for gravitational waves — is around 5 billion dollars; the cost of the LHC — the particle accelerator that should find the Higgs — is around 8 billion dollars; Mars Science Laboratory is over 2 billion dollars, and the upcoming James Webb Space telescope — the successor to Hubble — is close to 5 billion dollars.
What are we spending our money on anyway?
Boy, you know, somehow it’s really hard for me to get mad about a whole 0.8% of the budget being spend on all science and technology combined. But some people do, and (they feel) legitimately so.
Let me take you back 100 years. 100 years ago, we thought that:
- The Milky Way was the only galaxy in the Universe.
- The only two forces in the Universe were gravity and electromagnetism.
- The Solar System ended at Neptune.
- The Universe was unchanging and infinitely old.
- Newton’s law of universal gravitation was always 100% true.
So. What I’m going to be doing over the next two weeks is — starting at 1909 — I’m going to come forward in time, 10 years at a time, and tell you the story of (for me) what the most miraculous discovery or achievement — scientifically — of the time was.
Why? Because to me, scientific knowledge, discovery, and understanding is the absolute pinnacle of human achievement. It is the greatest thing humanity has ever accomplished, and it is the one thing that will never be wiped away as time goes on. We may outgrow our cars, airplanes, and even our planet the way we outgrew the telegraph, the chariot, and the city-state. But the laws of nature, the fundamental how it works of it all, is the highest form of art. And I can think of no better way to show it than to highlight the greatest achievements and discoveries that we made by investing in this. We did this, we learned this, and we owe it to ourselves to celebrate it for the great achievement that it is.
And that’s the point. Is that not worth my 0.8%?