On Friday, some of the Affiliations staff attended the first in a new lecture series by SI’s Under Secretary of Science, David L. Evans. Deriving his title from a scientist in Gulliver’s Travels, his thesis in the lecture was to illuminate the values of pure scientific research, unfettered by a concern for its practical application. (check it out http://www.si.edu/research/spotlight/lectures_2006.html.)
To illustrate, he told the stories of three former Smithsonian Secretaries, all notable experts in their time, whose devotion to pure research found application only decades later. Early in the 20th century, a Smithsonian Secretary, an avid ornithologist, preserved entire birds in alcohol, rather than just the skins or bones. In the last 20 years, researchers were able to access and study the DNA of the birds from that collection for clues on bird flu mutations and transmission rates.
He referenced a seminal work in the history of scientific research, Vannevar Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier. (http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/vbush1945.htm) As science advisor to FDR, Bush submitted this report to the president in 1945, arguing that pure research would benefit the country in three ways – economically, for public health, and in national defense. This document ultimately led to the formation of the National Science Foundation. Again, at the end of the 20th century, legislators revisited the document, and added the benefit of helping to establish public policy.
Dr. Evans finished his talk by sharing three current research projects underway at the Smithsonian, that as yet, have no practical application in mind. The one I found most striking concerns our universe. Scientists have long known that dark matter constitutes part of our universe, and that the universe is expanding. Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have also recently discovered that the universe’s expansion is accelerating – it goes faster as it disperses, and they are able to measure this acceleration. They have determined that approximately 70% of the universe is this dark energy, pushing it apart. Which means that a very small fraction, less than 10%, of the universe is made up of the stuff we’re on – planets, stars, etc. (cfa-www.harvard.edu/)
How this information will ultimately benefit us is anyone’s guess, but as Dr. Evans pointed out, it does make one “scale our regard in cosmic terms.” That perspective is always useful.