Last week the radio show that I co-host, Atheists Talk, had Lawrence Krauss on the air. In preparing for that show I stumbled across an NPR radio interview in which Ira Flatow was speaking with Dr. Krauss about his newest book A Universe From Nothing. One of the audience questions was this:
CALLER: With all due respect, and I find what you’re saying fascinating, but where is the practicality for us on Earth? What is it doing for us today or even in the very near future?
How often do we hear this? “Why are you studying x, y, z?” “What could that study possibly have to do with anything?” “You want to do what to a mouse?”
The payoff for certain avenues of exploration is not always clear to us if they deal with a subject or field outside of our experience and understanding. This goes double for those who don’t have an appreciation for science, who don’t understand the gazillion steps and painstakingly slow pace that scientific methodology sometimes requires, who don’t understand science for science’s sake.
I haven’t been able to get Dr. Krauss’s response out of my head. I want to memorize it so I can use it for my elevator speech whenever someone asks, “Why does that matter?”
KRAUSS: Well, you know, it’s a good question. And I put it back to you. I’d say, well, what does a Bach cantata or a Picasso painting do for us? I think the point is we are human beings, and one of the most wonderful aspect of being human beings is being creative and asking questions and trying to understand our place in the universe. And it is absolutely true that understanding the beginning and end of the universe is not going to produce a better toaster. But I’m always amazed that people – for me, one of the great virtues of science is it’s a cultural activity, like art and literature and music. It enhances the experience of being human, and it addresses the questions that I’m sure you’ve asked about your own existence.
And if we can get new insights into our own existence and our place in the cosmos, well, that’s what happens when we attend a good play or see a good painting. It gives us a new perspective of our place in the universe. And I happen to think that is worth it for its own sake. Plus, I happen to think these ideas are among the most remarkable and astounding ideas human beings have ever come up with. And we owe it to – we scientists owe it to the people to try and explain what’s happening, and I think they enhance the quality of our existence. And you know, it’s not just technology. I think that’s what is really important. Now, of course, there are always side benefits of doing – of every time we build a new big machine like the Large Hadron Collider and push the limits of technology, we develop tools that later on are used in society. But I don’t think we should justify this remarkable adventure just because of the side effects.
Science can’t be reduced to only monetary or material gain. Well, no…it shouldn’t be reduced to only monetary or material gain. Speaking as an industry scientist, let me tell you science can be focused on the bottom line, but in my experience that’s rarely a happy or motivational atmosphere for a scientist to find herself in. Innovation and discovery comes from dreaming and playing around with variables and making mistakes and learning new information.
So no, science doesn’t always give you a better toaster. But it can give us a better understanding of ourselves and the universe in which we find ourselves. And that’s exciting.