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Why should you care about Big Science?

By Jon Ward
Arizona Daily Wildcat
October 22, 1998
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Jon Ward

Right here at the U of A we work and go to school in the shadow of Big Science-abstruse research conducted on the frontiers of human knowledge, scarcely accessible to your average pre-med or business major, who incidentally make up 99 percent of the student population.

The one-hundredth of a percent of UA students who are hard-core science majors are all locked away in labs performing bizarre feats of the mind, evolving into strange neural symbiosis with their computers, far from the light of day and the reality of three-figure IQs, so I'll address myself to my non-cybernetic brethren who must ask themselves when they see Big Science in the headlines, "Why the hell should I care?"

Good question. Why should you, Joe Freshman, care if some Egburt Egghead realized the large-scale part of some mass fluctuation spectrum is constrained by the measures or bounds on the velocity field and the CBR anisotropy, because in linear perturbation theory the second moments of some variables are linear integrals over the mass autocorrelation function?

Yes, you would probably be more interested in the texture and color of Egburt's cross-dressing aunt Bertha's divorced husband's sick dog's feces after he ate the colored chalk that Egburt used when scrawling that formula across four chalkboards in some remote dungeon of the physics building where the lights are never turned off.

If so, I would be inclined to sympathize with your lack of sympathy.

However, not all Big Science is like that. Some effects you directly, some indirectly. There are insomniac scientists slaving away at cures for insomnia; there are genetically gifted graduates gaining ground in the fight for genetic screening of deadly and debilitating conditions; there are hyper-stressed scientists tediously toiling toward producing stress-relieving drugs, cures for heart disease, neurological disorders, etc.

There's no doubt that some Big Science is as practical as it is practically impossible for most of us to understand. But what about those research areas that are inherently beyond the bounds of utility? What about pure research, which exists only for the harvesting of more knowledge - knowledge that will never significantly influence the life of anyone who is not involved in acquiring it? For example, you may ask, "Why spend millions building bigger telescopes so we can see things more up close farther away from where we really are?" Most students here don't know about our renowned Steward Observatory's famous mirror lab, nestled modestly under the football stadium of all places. If they did know about it, they might wonder why precious space in something as important as an athletic facility was being wasted on building big mirrors so we can look at stars farther and farther away from us.

Some may even ask, "Why probe so deeply into the past, into times and places so far removed from our existence that we could never possibly be affected by them?"

I think the answer for many scientists would be a simple, "Because we want to! What the hell is it to you? Just get off my back already you little insectoid bastard!" [Picture]

Or maybe not, but their answer would probably have something to do with the thrill of discovery and the natural human drive to explore.

Why climb Mount Everest? It's not like you're going to build a house up there. Well, climb it because it's there, because you can't stand looking at it mocking you. Climb it for the satisfaction of the accomplishment.

We scale the mountains of the universe's mysteries because as humans we can't stand not knowing. We want to know everything, even if it won't ever affect us. And the truth is, we won't really know if an area of research will never affect us until we've explored it. As any egghead can attest, the more we discover, the more our discoveries link up unexpectedly, gradually forming an intricately connected whole. Who would have imagined, for instance, that cosmic rays penetrating the atmosphere from outer space could directly influence biological evolution, or that dust from space could even be necessary for the advent of life on planets like ours in the first place.

Maybe knowing such things doesn't change whether I still have a tail, a prominent brow ridge and a protruding jaw or not, but it sure is nice to know. And besides, some of the most influential and world-shaping discoveries came from the abstruse mental wanderings of obscure eggheads.

Maybe you couldn't care less that the tidal field far away from an uncompensated mass concentration can be defined by the relative motions of neighboring observers at fixed coordinate positions, but Egburt certainly cares. So if nothing else, for the love of time-orthogonal coordinates! Leave him alone and let him explore! You never know, he might find something that affects us all; and even if it never does, it's still knowledge. And knowledge is good.

Jon Ward is an astronomy and creative writing junior. His column, Who's the Bull Goose Looney? appears every Thursday and he can be reached via e-mail at