The Worth Of Science

Ok, I never do this–it is tough enough to come up with one post a day (I usually can’t, so you get a few a week, but rarely as many as seven!), let alone more than that. But the NPR comment thread includes people asking what tangible value we get from the amazing discovery of the new (ok, newly found) ring around Saturn. And other commenters are taking the bait, giving answers framed in terms of dollars or other pragmatic criteria.

It is in times like this that I am thankful to both History and Winston Churchill. History, because scientific discoveries so often prove practically useful–sometimes long after they are found (the recent Nobel prizes show that practical applications certainly can come from pure research), and Churchill for one quote. Asked if he would suspend Arts subsidies in order to help the war effort, Churchill replied “What the hell do you think we’re fighting for?”

If Churchill can use that reasoning, so can I.

What use is this discovery?
How many will it feed?
How many will it rescue from their poverty and need?
How many of my dollars went
To see this plan succeed,
While all around the globe, the people starve, the people bleed?

This money could be better used—
We could have gotten more!
Let’s fix the problems here at home, before we go explore!
The piles of money spent on this
We cannot just ignore—
A tenth of a percent* of what we spent on Iraq’s war!

Let’s question all the cost, of course,
And effort that we’re spending,
Against the gains in science, and the knowledge we’re extending.
It may not help to win a war,
If that’s what we’re pretending,
But stuff like this can make our culture one that’s worth defending**.

*ok, slightly less. Poetic license. Total cost of Spitzer telescope: 720 million dollars, according to Caltech. Total cost of Iraq war so far: 860 Billion as of February of this year, according to the NYTimes.

**not my idea—Winston Churchill’s.

Oh, I forgot! This and the last post were also posted as comments on an NPR story here.



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