Neil deGrasse Tyson on the "science should be used to improve life" argument

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If you have an hour on your hands you may want to check out this recent interview on the Science Network with Neil deGrasse Tyson on a ton of issues related to communicating science, and if you only have a few minutes this part 35 minutes and 40 seconds in is particularly good. It's a particularly good answer to the argument that science should be used (entirely) for the elimination of suffering, from which comes the lazy argument that the (pitifully small amount of) money spent on space should be spent at home in order to bring human suffering to some unspecified level before we colonize the Moon or spent a billion here or there on gigantic telescopes. NASA does a fairly good job of justifying its funding by promoting spinoffs as a result of NASA's research, but in a sense this is giving in to the argument that they should be producing something with quick real-world applications in order to be useful. A more long-term view is better, and that's what that part of the video is about. I've typed out that part (about four minutes long) so here it is:

Let me clarify this notion that science is the path to solving your problems. I think that misrepresents what drives scientists. Do you think when you speak with Brian Greene he's going to say "I am trying to come up with a coherent understanding of the nature of reality so that I can solve people's problems"? Do you think that's what's driving him? Do you think I'm being driven when I look at the early universe or study the rotation of galaxies or the consumption of matter by black holes, do you think I'm being driven by the lessening of the suffering of the people on Earth? Most research on the frontier of science is not driven by that goal. Period.

Now, that being said, most of the greatest applications of science that do improve the human condition comes from just that kind of research. Therein is the intellectual link that needs to be established in an elective democracy where tax-based monies pay for the research on the frontier.

Because people are saying "why are you researching that when you should be finding a cure for my disease?". Okay, and I don't have a problem with that. But did you know that we diagnosed your disease using an MRI? And what is the physical principle behind the magnetic resonance imager? It came from a physicist who's an expert in atomic nuclei wondering how you would detect this...in interstellar space! Do you think that physicist, when he came up with this understanding of -- it's called nuclear magnetic resonance -- do you think he was saying to himself "one day we'll have machines that will diagnose the condition of the human body without cutting it open in advance"? Do you think this is what was going on in his head? Of course not! It came out of this curiosity-driven research. Do you think Einstein, when he wrote down his equations for stimulated emission of atoms, (that) he's saying to himself, "hey, one day this will be the foundation of a laser and we'll have bar coding"? Do you think this is on his -- "one day we'll have LASIK surgery"! No! No!

So, to say that "the purpose of science is to improve life" -- the purpose of science is to understand the natural world. And the natural world has, interestingly enough, built within it, forces and phenomena and materials that a whole other round of clever people -- engineers, in the case of the magnetic resonance imager, these are biomedical engineers basing their patents, their machine principles on physics, discovered by a physicist, an astrophysicist at that. So I take issue with the assumption that science is simply to make life better. Science is to understand the world. And use that -- now you've got a utility belt of understanding. Now you access your tools out of that, and use those, an ever-increasing assortment of power over nature, to use that power in the greater good of our species. You need it all.

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