I have a friend who is always interested in learning, but is by coincidence largely uninformed in the areas which most interest me. We often have conversations in which either I will mention something interesting I have learned or she will mention something cool she heard about computers, physics, linguistics, or history, and the rest of the conversation will be an attempt by myself to explain the background and sincere attempts on her part to understand, often punctuated by questions that make me want to bang my head in frustation at how outlandish they sound to me. (This, incidentally, is why she is probably the best person to talk about these things with; she forces me to look at things from a different perspective.) It often seems like I am starting over from scratch, but I’m sure that she feels the same way when explaining budgeting, education, and other of her interests to me. One question that comes up far more often from her to me than vice versa, however, is “Why?”

It ought to be a legitimate question. Why would you ever want to learn anything? Particularly anything that requires massive grants, expensive machines, and decades of education? Well, many things have practical applications, but the truth is that more often than not, I find myself defending such esoteric research that I can’t really give that answer with a straight face. Sure, we might someday have a use for slowing light to the speed of a car (this precise article is one of the things we spoke of, as a matter of fact), but right now the only use is that it’s interesting. At the time, I said “Just because it has no use now doesn’t mean it never will,” and I gave a few examples from the article, which says, “In the future, slowing light could have a number of practical consequences, including the potential to send data, sound, and pictures in less space and with less power. Also, the results obtained by Hau”s experiment might be used to create new types of laser projection systems and night vision cameras with power requirements a million times less than what is presently possible.” However, even the next paragraph of the article belies that reason: “But that’s not why Hau, a research scientist at both Harvard and the Rowland Institute, originally set out to do the experiments. ‘We did them because we are curious about this new state of matter,’ she says. ‘We wanted to understand it, to discover all the things that can be done with it.’”[1]

I recently learned, with a large amount of abstraction due to my relative inability with math, about how scientists have learned how the universe actually did come from nothing. (Far too basic answer: If you count all of the positive and negative energy in the universe, it adds up to zero, so there’s still nothing; quantum fluctuations have simply separated the nothing into what appears to be something.) Someone might be able to put the lie to my following statement, but, quite frankly, there is no practical purpose to knowing that, and it took a lot of figuring and money to get to that point. Why would physicists bother to figure that out? Why would anyone pay them to do it? Who would spend decades of their lives pursuing false leads and getting the wrong answers, only to be inordinately pleased when someone else gets the right answer, especially to such a useless question?

Richard Dawkins likes to talk about the non-stick frying pan approach versus a more esoteric, artistic thought process. His name for the approach comes from the fact that, while the U. S. space program had very little in the way of practical results from space exploration itself, research into building better space vehicles did give us some very useful materials including polytetrafluoroethylene (a. k. a. Teflon™)—the stuff that makes non-stick pans non-stick—and Pyrex, heat-resistant glass.[2] “Justifying space exploration because we get non-stick frying pans is like justifying music because it is good exercise for the violinists right arm.”[3]

In attempting to justify the slowing of light, the origins of the universe, the mathematical encoding of language (the basics from which the field of Semantics is generated), and the teasing apart of the nuances of ancient languages, I have fallen prey to the innate desire to claim that things that interest me have practical use. The truth is, they do not and may never. The truth is that that is okay. Exploration for its own sake is an innate desire of humanity, and should never be discouraged. Sometimes something good will come out of it, as Teflon™ did by complete accident, and sometimes all we will get is a sense of accomplishment at having discovered something about the universe. We would not be where we are today if we had not let philosophers ponder the mysteries of life in ancient Greece and China, and yet, if you read what those ancient philosphers wrote and really pay attention, a more worthless pursuit you will rarely find. The philosophers of old theorized about abstractions far beyond their capabilities to use for any practical purpose, and, more often than not they were entirely wrong.[4] Still, their words are as prized today as any author who said from the outset that his works were fiction, including William Shakespeare, Shikubu Murasaki, and Euripides.

Yes, I am saying that physics, past a certain point, is art. It is the art of understanding our universe. All science is art, in a way. True, mathematics underlies all science in a more obvious way than it does the visual arts, and in a far more obvious way than it does literature, but in truth math underlies all things, and laymen derive pleasure from learning about the universe in much the same way as laymen derive pleasure from seeing a beautiful sculpture, hearing an inspiring piece of music, or reading a good book. Make no mistake: Artists may generally seem more accessible than physicists, but both have the distinction of being trained to see far more in their respective fields than you or I, and both are technically in the business of producing something for laymen to look at. As I mentioned earlier, my background in mathematics is nowhere near up to the levels of even a Physics major, let alone a graduate student, let alone a full-on research professor; nevertheless, I enjoy reading about the discoveries that physicists make with their math, and it is the enjoyment others derive from the same experience that keeps physicists in grant money.

So, no, perhaps we won’t be getting any more non-stick pans out of bleeding-edge physics. Perhaps linguists won’t teach us to understand each other any better than we already do. Perhaps archæologists will never be able to do more than tell amusing stories about what ancient people did. Does that mean they should stop doing what they do, at least as a profession? I say nay. If we are to consider ourselves capable of abstract thought, capable of art, capable of discovery, then nothing should deter us from pushing the limits of our knowledge, regardless of the concrete rewards or lack thereof. The next time my friend asks me, “Why?” I shall answer in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I hear you say ‘Why?’ Always ‘Why?’ You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’”[5]

WordPress doesn’t like <hr> for some reason.


1. Source: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/1999/02.18/light.html

2. Oddly enough, neither of these products was actually created for the space industry. Polytetrafluorethylene was invented in 1938, patented in 1941, and trademarked as Teflon™ in 1945; while borosilicate glass was invented in the 19th century and Corning obtained a trademark for the product as Pyrex™ during WWI. A better example would be the equally-ubiquitous and actually-created-for-the-space-program Teflon™-looop/polyesther-hook (in other words, the modern manufacture) Velcro™ (although, again, the hook-and-loop fastener was originally invented in 1948 in Switzerland). Regardless, Dawkins’ point is still reasonable because much of the public believes that Teflon™ was invented for NASA, and his quote concerns answering public concerns about the reasonableness of abstract research.

3. I can’t recall where the quote originates (a lecture? The God Delusion? The Blind Watchmaker?), but I do know that the proper attribution is to Richard Dawkins, and that a source, at least, can be found at http://richarddawkins.net/quotes/48.

4. Archimedes of Syracuse’s unprecedented success in the fields of optics, engineering, and mathematics notwithstanding. I speak of generalities, not specific cases, and philosophers in general had their heads up their asses. I am particularly appalled at the zeal with which Aristotle is taught today, in spite of the fact that even his metaphysics and ethics can be empirically disproven.

5. George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch), part 1 In the Beginning: B. C. 4004, act I. Admittedly, this is the Serpent’s line, but that makes it no less true, nor poignant.

Creative Commons License

“Why” by Wholly Crap Productions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, © September 2011; questions concerning copyright as pertains to referenced works and permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at houiostesmoiras@gmail.com. If you believe that work to which you own the copyright is being used in a way that infringes on your copyright, please send an email with credentials stating which pages you find offensive, and they will be taken down until an agreement can be reached, or permanently if no agreement can be reached.


0 Responses to “Why”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: