Of what use?

By Isaac Asimov

One may detest nature and despise science, but it becomes more and more difficult to ignore them.  Science in the modern world is not an entertainment for some devotees.  It is on its way to becoming every-body’s business.  — Theodosius Dobzhansky, in The Biology of Ultimate Concern.

It is the fate of the scientist to face the constant demand that he show his learning to have some “practical use.”  Yet it may not be of interest to him to have such a “practical use” exist; he may feel that the delight of learning, of understanding, of probing the universe, is its own reward.  In that case, he might even allow himself the indulgence of contempt for anyone who asks more.

There is a famous story of a student who asked the Greek philosopher Plato, about 370 B.C., of what use were the elaborate and abstract theorems he was being taught.  Plato at once ordered a slave to give the student a small coin that he might not think he had gained knowledge for nothing, then had him dismissed from the school.

The student need not have asked and Plato need not have scorned.  Who would today doubt that mathematics has its uses? Mathematical theorems, which seem unbearably refined and remote from anything a sensible man can have any interest in, turn out to be absolutely necessary to such highly essential part of our modern life as, for instance, the telephone network that knits the world together.

This story of Plato, famous for two thousand years, has not made matters plainer to most people.  Unless the application of a new discovery is clear and present, most are dubious of its value.

A story about the English scientist Michael Faraday illustrates the point.  In his time, he was an enormously popular lecturer, as well as a physicist and chemist of the first rank.  In one of his lectures in the 1840s, he illustrated the peculiar behavior of a magnet in connection with a spiral coil of wire which was connected to a galvanometer that would record the presence of an electric current.

There was no current in the wire to begin with, but when the magnet was thrust into the hollow center of the spiral coil, the needle of the galvanometer moved to one side of the scale, showing that a current was flowing.  When the magnet was withdrawn from the coil , the needle flipped in the other direction, showing that the current was now flowing the other way.  When the magnet was held motionless in any position within the coil, there was no current at all, and the needle was motionless.

At the conclusion of the lecture, one member of the audience approached Faraday and said, “Mr. Faraday, the behavior of the magnet and the coil of wire was interesting, but of what possible use can it be?”  Faraday answered politely, “Sir, of what use is a newborn baby?”

It was precisely the phenomenon whose use was questioned so peremptorily by one of the audience that Faraday made use to develop the electric generator, which, for the first time, made it possible to produce electricity cheaply and in quantity.  That, in turn, made it possible to build the electrified technology that surrounds us today and without which life, in the modern sense, is inconceivable.  Faraday’s demonstration was a new-born baby that grew into a giant.

Even the shrewdest of men cannot always judge what is useful and what is not.  There never was a man so ingeniously practical in judging the useful as Thomas Alva Edison, surely the greatest inventor who ever lived, and we can take him as our example.

In 1868, he patented his first invention.  It was a device to record votes mechanically.  By using it, congressmen could press a button and all their votes would be recorded and totaled instantly.  There was no question that the invention worked; it remained only to sell it.  A congressman whom Edison consulted, however, told him, with mingled amusement and horror, that there wasn’t a chance of the invention being accepted, however unfailingly it might work.  A slow vote, it seemed, was sometimes a political necessity.  Some congressmen might have their opinions changed in the course of a slow vote, whereas a quick vote might, in a moment of emotion, commit the Congress to something undesirable.

Edison, chagrined, learned his lesson.  After that, he decided never to invent anything unless he was sure it would be needed and wanted and not merely because it worked.

He stuck to that.  Before he died, he had obtained nearly 1,300 patents — 300 of them over a four-year stretch, or one every five days, on the average.  Always he was guided by his notion of the useful and the practical.

On October 21, 1879, he produced the first practical electric light, perhaps the most astonishing of all his inventions. (We need only sit by candlelight for a while during a power breakdown to discover how much we accept and take for granted the electric light.)

In succeeding years, Edison labored to improve the electric light and, mainly, to find ways of making the glowing filament last longer before breaking.  As was usual with him, he tried everything he could think of.  One of his hit-or-miss efforts was to seal a metal wire into the evacuated electric light bulb, near the filament but not touching it, the two separated by a small gap of vacuum.

Edison then turned on the electric current to see if the presence of the metal wire would somehow preserve the life of the glowing filament.  It didn’t, and he abandoned the approach.  However, he could not help noticing that an electric current seem to flow from the filament to the wire across  the vacuum gap.

Nothing in Edison’s vast practical knowledge of electricity explained that phenomenon, and all Edison could do was to observe it, write it up in his notebooks, and, in 1884 (being Edison), patent it.  The phenomenon was called the “Edison effect,” and it was the inventor’s only discovery in pure science.  Edison could see no use for it.  He therefore pursued the matter no further and let it go, while he continued the chase for what he considered the useful and the practical.

In 1880s and 1890s, however, scientists who pursued “useless” knowledge for its own sake, discovered that subatomic particles (eventually called “electrons”) existed, and that electric current was accompanied by a flow of electrons.  The Edison effect was the result of the ability of electrons, under certain conditions, to travel unimpeded through as vacuum.

In 1904, the English electrical engineer John Ambrose Fleming (who had worked win Edison’s London office in the 1880s in connection with the developing electric-light industry) made use of the Edison effect and of the new understanding that the electron theory had brought.  He devised an evacuated glass bulb with a filament and a wire which would let the current through in one direction but not in the other.  The result was a “current rectifier.”

In 1906, the American inventor Lee De Forest made a further elaboration of Fleming’s device, introducing a metal plate that enabled it to amplify electric current as well as to rectify it.  The result is called a “radio tube” by Americans.

It is called that because only such as device could handle an electric current with sufficient rapidity and delicacy to make the radio a practical instrument for receiving and transmitting sound carried by the fluctuating amplitude of radio waves.  In fact, the radio tube made all of our modern electronic equipment possible — including television.

The Edison effect, then, which the practical Edison shrugged off as interesting but useless, turned out to have more astonishing results than any of his practical devices.  In a power breakdown, candles and kerosene lamps can substitute (however poorly) for the electric light, but what substitute is there for a television screen?  We can live without it (if we consider it only as an entertainment device, which does it wrong), but not many people seem to want to.

In fact, the problem isn’t a matter of showing that pure science can be useful.  It is much more difficult problem to find some branch of science that isn’t useful. Between 1900 and 1930, for instance, theoretical physics underwent a revolution.  The theory of relativity and the development of quantum mechanism led to a new and more subtle understanding of the basic laws of the universe and of the behavior of the inner components of the atom.

None of it seemed it seemed to have the slightest use for mankind, and the scientists involved — a brilliant group of young men — apparently had found an ivory tower for themselves that nothing could disturb.  Those who survived into later decades looked back on that happy time of abstraction and impracticality as a Garden of Eden out of which they had been evicted.  For out of that abstract work there unexpectedly came the nuclear bomb, and a world that now lives in terror of a possible war that could destroy mankind in a day.

But it did not bring only terror.  Out of that research also came radio-isotopes, which have made it possible to  probe the workings of living tissue with a delicacy otherwise quite impossible, and whose findings have revolutionized medicine in thousand ways.  There are also nuclear power stations, which, at present and in the future, offer mankind the brightest hope of ample energy during all his future existence on earth.

There is nothing, it turns out, that is more practical, more downright important to the average man, whether for good or for evil, than the ivory-tower researches of the young men of the early twentieth century who could see no use in what they were doing and were glad of it, for they wanted only to revel in knowledge of its own sake.

The point is that we cannot foresee the consequences in detail.  Plato, in demonstrating the theorems of geometry, did not envisage a computerized society.  Faraday knew that his magnet-induced electric current was a new-born baby, but he surely did not foresee our electrified technology.  Edison certainly didn’t foresee a television set when he puzzled over the electric current that leaped the vacuum, and Einstein, when he worked out the equation E = mc2 from purely theoretical considerations in 1905, did not sense the mushroom cloud as he did so.

We can only make the general rule that, though all of history, an increased understanding of the universe, however out-of-the-way a particular bit of new knowledge may seem, however ethereal, however abstract, however useless, has always ended in some practical application (even if sometimes only indirectly).

The application cannot be predicted, but we can be sure that it will have both its beneficial and its uncomfortable aspects.  (The discovery of the germ theory of disease by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s was the greatest single advance ever made in medicine and led to the saving of countless millions of lives.  Who can quarrel with that?  Yet it also has led , in great measure, to the dangerous population explosion of today.)

It remains for the wisdom of mankind to make the decisions by which advancing knowledge will be used well or not ill, but all the wisdom of mankind will never improve the material lot of man unless advancing knowledge presents it with the matters over which it can make those decisions.  And when, despite the most careful decisions, there come dangerous side-effects of the new knowledge, only still-further advances in knowledge will offer hope for correction.

And now we stand in the closing decades of the twentieth century, with science advancing as never before in all sorts of odd, and sometimes apparently useless, ways.  We’ve discovered quasars and pulsars in the distant heavens.  Of what use are they to the average man? Astronauts have brought back rocks from the moon at great expense.  So what? Scientists discover new compounds, develop new theories, work out new mathematical complexities.  What for?  What’s in it for you?

No one knows what’s in it for you right now, any more than Plato knew in his time, or Faraday knew, or Edison knew, or Einstein knew.

But you will know if you live long enough; and if not, your children or grandchildren will know.  And they will smile at those who say, “But what is the use of sending rockets into space?” just as we know smile at the person who asked Faraday the use of his demonstration.

In fact, unless we continue with science and gather knowledge, whether or not it seems useful on the spot, we will be buried under our problems and find no way out.  Today’s science is tomorrow’s solution — and tomorrow’s problems , too — and, most of all, it is mankind’s greatest adventure, now and forever.

From the introduction to “The greatest adventure: basic research that shapes our lives”, Eds. E. H. Kone and H. J. Jordan, Rockefeller University Press, 1974.

6 thoughts on “Of what use?

  1. Asimov’s non-fiction writings ranged pretty wide, though there was a definite – though unsurprising – bias towards physics and astronomy. In his books “A Short History of Biology”, “How did we find out about the brain?” and “How we found out about germs”Asimov discusses many important advances in scientific knowledge and medicine that were made through animal research, and clearly understood the important role it played.

    For example see http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/germspix.pdf

    So it’s clear that Asimov did appreciate the role of animal research in advancing medicine, even if he doesn’t refer to it directly in the essay Dario posted above.

  2. I see… A scientist working on an abstract mathematical theorem or doing theoretical physics work can obviously generate a finding of great benefit to mankind, but as soon as a mouse is involved in the research we are are guaranteed 100% failure. Is that what you are saying?

  3. That’s real basic science described here.
    Asmov makes no mention of MICE AND VIVISECTORS. Presumably he detested vivisection as an unscientific monstrosity and a hindrance to medical progress.

    “To insult someone we call him “bestial.” For deliberate cruelty and nature, “human” might be the greater insult.”
    -Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations

    From beasts we scorn as soulless,
    In forest, field and den,
    The cry goes up to witness
    The soullessness of men.
    -M. Frida Hartley

  4. And before animal rights activists show up here misinterpreting this essay about the value of basic research as implying we can do with animals as we please… please save your time and energy. No, that’s not what it means at all.

Comments are closed.