I don' wanna say nuffink

December 23 2016

I've no interest in impressing or enlightening anybody. Which is odd 'cos I write for a living, and I may be quitting my dayjob in a few months, I should probably use this opportunity to promote my freelance services. Meh, I have a wife and kids and a mortgage, we're doing fine, I don't need marketing.

As a Listserve member, I never wanted to win, but if I did, I'd say, "I have nothing to say" and then sign off. But someone did that a year ago. He or she took my only good idea.

So my wife persuaded me to rerun a blog I wrote years ago. "What good is a baby?" It's longer than 600 words but I don't have time to make it shorter. Google a representative phrase if you want to read the whole thing, this will probably just get cut short -
The title is a quote from the brilliant and influential 19th-century British scientist Michael Faraday, who after showing the Prime Minister around his lab, was asked - "This is all very good, Mr. Faraday... but what possible use is it?"

"Mr. Prime Minister, what good is a baby?" said the man whose work would contribute to, among many other things: the development of electric motors and generators, electrolysis, radio research, and even early insights into nanotechnology.

It's actually a fair question to ask of science - what use is all this research? Why waste time and money to study obscure stuff like the mating habits of salamanders, or the mating habits of Neanderthals, or the mating habits of volcanoes, or the mating habits of quantum particles, or the mating habits of saturated fats, or y’know, it always seems to be mating habits with those guys, doesn’t it?

There are two problems with simply dismissing anything you don’t understand as either unimportant or frivolous - well, really there’s three, since that attitude suggests that you've lost the mental bits which separate homo sapiens from reality show hosts.

First, the media’s reporting on science ranges from pitiful to anger-inducing. We hear about medical studies spanning decades and involving thousands of people, weighing in at 600 peer-reviewed pages or more, summarized on the nightly news as "Hey, maybe salt isn't as bad for you as we thought, now over to Phil for the sports!" There’s very little room for nuance, context, or even the basic point of it all sometimes.

Secondly, science is not taught very well in schools - no shocker there. Did YOU learn anything useful?

A man I worked with once described what it was like going to school in the early 1960s in the US. Sputnik had just delivered a national shock - the USSR, then thought of as technically backward by complacent Americans fed propaganda, put a satellite into orbit in 1959, more than a year before Americans managed anything similar.

He described the level of science and mathematical education as “almost embarrassingly enriched”, with seemingly limitless funding springing from the floodgates opened by a panicking Congress.

This explains why all the science equipment I remember from the 80s was slide projectors, mimeograph machines, bakelite lab gear and textbooks from - you guessed it - the 1960s.

It's been pointed out that we're a species of idiots living in a world built by freak geniuses. We muddle along for centuries at a stretch, placidly minding our own business, laughing at each other’s burps, until one day some peasant squats down in a muddy field and gives birth to a Gutenberg... next thing you know, we all gotta learn how to read.

Some examples of major results springing from unexpected and humble beginnings - in the 80s, an Australian astronomer had problems processing telescope data for research on dwarf stars.

He worked out a design for a chip which could perform the math to clean up the signals so he could get results - something to do with their mating habits, I’ve no doubt.

It turns out this silicon chip solved a problem that kept wireless networking super expensive, and next thing you know, wires seem old-fashioned.

Go back further - in 1945 a researcher in a postwar radar lab named Percy Spencer walks past an early magnetron tube, and notices the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Guess who’s responsible for the introduction of microwave ovens 2 years later? Yeah, the geek with a brown stain on his trousers.

As Isaac Asimov said, the most exciting phrase in science is not "EUREKA!" but "Hey, that's funny..."

Billions have been squandered. Promising careers wasted. Valuable time lost. Sometimes quite preventably. Other times, by the smartest of people acting with the best of intentions.

Occasionally, great breakthroughs are achieved by dedicated folks working in their spare time, with pencil and paper, in a garage or basement.

Money and support are not always the answer, nor is their lack always the problem. So I’m not talking about them.

Every story I can relate about serendipitous events, you can probably find 100 counter-examples, many of them tragic..

I believe the good outweighs the bad.

Here’s one: every single form of medical imaging currently in use - from X-ray to CAT scans to ultrasound - owes credit to discoveries by people who’d been mucking around in completely unrelated areas. Not one of them arose as a result of purposeful medical research.

So if your grandma is alive today thanks to a lump someone found early (as is my wife’s), you can thank the curiosity of people who looked like they were wasting their time - and your tax money. You don’t even have to find the right ones, since the whole point is that nobody can tell in advance whose crazy idea is going to lead somewhere.

Ben Scott
Melbourne Australia. No, a bit to the right

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