Lessons from science part the third: why we do what we do

One last thought on science, method and the humanities; a footnote if you will to the last two posts (Lessons from science: ‘Digital Humanities, History of Science and Technology, and juking the stats‘ and ‘Lessons from Science part two: at Collider‘.

I am reading Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe – a book on CERN, the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs Boson (yes, I’m obsessed…) – and yesterday I stumbled across a (not unexpected maybe) and very cogent passage that describes why scientists (in particular theoretical physicists) do what they do.

It starts with Carroll noting a practical application of Einstein’s theory of relativity: without the knowledge that clocks in orbit tick a bit faster than those at sea level our GPS systems would, very gradually, go out of sync. ‘But,’ he continues:

Technological applications, while important, are ultimately not the point for me or JoAnne Hewett or any of the experimentalists who spend long hours building equipment and sifting through data. They’re great when they happen, and we won’t turn up our noses if someone uses the Higgs boson to find a cure for ageing. But it’s not why we are looking for it. We’re looking because we are curious. The Higgs is the final piece to a puzzle we’ve been working on solving for an awful long time. Finding it is its own reward’

Now of course it would be an error (in the same category as saying I speak for all historians…) to suggest that Carroll is speaking for all scientists. Context is also important here: Carroll mentions more than once that pursuing an ambition of theoretical physics at such vast expense (the LHC programme is so expensive no single government could have funded it) was a big gamble – if nothing had been found, indeed even if the Higgs turns out to be all that is found, rather than some more exotic, complex, problematic version of the Higgs, funding for this type of research might be doomed in the long term, deemed too expensive, too little bang for one’s buck.

A man and his telescope. Science is a quite a bit more pricey today!
A man and his telescope. Science is a quite a bit more pricey today!

That being so, the sense of purpose, the sense of learning for the sake of learning, the fearless insistence of pursuing knowledge for sake of knowledge is remarkable. There is no anxiety of over curiosity being a rationale for research. It is just research that has to be done. While I am all for academic researchers working in some capacity towards public good, it is always a delight to reading something from the academic community (a popular output if you will, but a output nonetheless) that puts this – as opposed to REF, citation metrics, language of impact, anxious grasping at potential ‘real-world’ applications for X, Y, Z – front and centre. Some research just has to be done for the sake of research, even in those sciences that we humanists often assume have all the answers to the ‘why bother’ question. The shouty outrage (usual suspects: Mail, Express) that followed the AHRC’s funding of research around Human-Chicken interaction, and the subsequent back-peddling, suggest the humanities (again, all usual generalisation caveats acknowledged) may have some way to go in mastering the art of explaining why we do what we do.


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