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Most scientific discoveries don't produce a technological gap

Various websites criticizing modern physics attract all sorts of individuals who really think that people shouldn't do science – in the sense of finding out how things work. A commenter under "String Phenomenology of Somewhat..." at a different physics blog who is named "akidbelle" believes that some amazing constraints should be imposed:

In my opinion, a successful theory leads to a technological gap. In this way, the sorcerer who could make fire was the scientist of the time - whatever the fairy tales he used to explain his doing. This is not a problem until a class of sorcerers emerges working not for the fire, but for the fairy-tales explanation that support their class.

What I learn from your list is that super-symmetry is not mentioned to lead to a technological gap (- in your list). What about string theory? [...]

Now if scientists ask the public to please give them money so they can write papers, make congresses, careers, receive prizes, and make experiments about topics they like and in which they have no hope to lead to a technological gap any time in the next 100 years, would that be true?... and what would happen?
In other words, akidbelle thinks that pure science should be completely eradicated while only applied science should be pursued by someone. Wow.

Richard Feynman once said:
Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.
Most of the time, people don't have sex because of the practical result. And it's exactly the same with science. They do it because it's fun. They do it because they are pre-programmed to be attracted to sex. Or they are pre-programmed to be curious. At least some people are.

Now, there is surely some relationship between both sex and science on one side; and the practical applications on the other side. We may explain why Nature has given us the organs and hormones that drive us towards sex or science: They have evolved because the life forms with these features turned out to be much more viable and competitive.

Sexual reproduction is able to combine the virtues of both parents which may be a helpful way to create offspring that have several advantages at the same moment and it may be done in one step. Incidentally, if you want to know, many biologists are convinced that the increased immunity that arises from the "algorithms inherited from the father" and "those from the mother" is the most important discipline in which the sexual reproduction shows its muscles.

Similarly, curiosity and intelligence have evolved in homo sapiens (and perhaps, much more speculatively or in a much more limited sense, in other species) because they allowed their carriers to find the food more cleverly, escape physically superior predators, fool competitors that wanted the same food, become independent of hunting altogether, and do many other wonderful things.

But all these things are explanations why (different percentages of humans) ended up having sexual instincts or intelligent curiosity. The advantages that helped sex and intelligent curiosity to evolve are in no way "duties" that Nature forces you to pursue at every moment. Most of the time, people don't have sex for practical applications and the people who are curious in science are usually not curious because of the practical applications, either.

From our point of view, the Internet users like akidbelle who just can't even imagine that someone could think it's a good idea to do science for its own sake look similar to the people who can't imagine that someone might want to have sex. Something is completely missing in these people. And yes, I think that the absence of this building block is a more severe defect than the missing sexual organs.

From fire to string theory: applications or not?

Akidbelle tells us that since the first moment when people played with fire, science demanded a practical application of each piece of research. It must only be some recent exceptions when it's no longer the case. Does he or she really believe such an insane thing?

First of all, when people caught fire and heuristically deduced some recipes to create fire, sustain fire, or use fire, it wasn't science yet. It wasn't science because there were no theories and no laws. At most, they had insights telling them "you should do this or that". Indeed, (proto-)science only began once people started to invent "fairy-tales" about fire and many other things. Real science without "proto-" only began once people were able to formulate clever enough "fairy-tales" – hypotheses – that predict numerous consequences in many contexts so that these "fairy-tales" could have been verified using different objects and phenomena than those from which the right "fairy-tales" were guessed. Science started once the hypotheses were around; and they could get "grades" according to a scientific, meritocratic criterion. But you shouldn't overlook the first part of the previous sentence; the construction of the hypotheses (realistic "fairy-tales") and candidate explanations is absolutely essential for science to exist.

This process became systematic especially after Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and a few others have made their contributions.

Much of the research and scholarship (and, in the true scholarly institutions, most of it) is a process that has a negligible probability to lead to a technological gap in any foreseeable future. Sufficiently abstract mathematics – and such mathematics has already been investigated for many centuries – doesn't lead to a technological gap. A trivial example: Fermat's Last Theorem was formulated in 1637 and proven in 1994 and it arguably leads to no technological gap, despite the huge amount of time that mathematicians have spent with efforts to prove it.

Mathematics is literally composed of hundreds of similar examples and whole subdisciplines of mathematics – homotopy, set theory, category theory, ... – are more or less obviously disconnected from any conceivable technological gap. By definition, all of mathematics should be independent of any applications. This conclusion is even more obvious in the case of philosophy etc. But you could protest that neither mathematics nor philosophy are natural sciences. Haven't natural sciences always produced a technological gap in a foreseeable future?

Examples of purity in natural sciences

Needless to say, even in sciences that are indisputably natural, there are very many cases and whole disciplines that lead to no technological gap. Every insight in science is in principle analogous (when it comes to its having "beef") to those that may be practically useful. But that doesn't mean that every insight in science is actually useful in practical life. Most aren't.

Take astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. It's useful to know about the motion and intensity of the Sun – because of navigation, planning of daily cycles, and a few more things. Perhaps, you may plan trips to the Moon and Mars to get some resources. But this is a tiny part of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. The scientific research of following objects and phenomena has arguably never led to any technological gap and most likely, it won't change anytime soon:
Other planets, other stars (and yes, constellations – they are useless even in science as we understand it now), information about hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, information about hundreds of billions of galaxies, their relationships, their evolution etc. (we won't get there for a really really long time if ever), asteroids, comets, brown dwarfs, neutron stars, black holes, expansion of the Universe, acceleration of the expansion, dark matter, dark energy, cosmic inflation, ...
Clearly, you can list pretty much anything studied in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. It's simply not useful for any "technological gap". Nevertheless, many of these clearly "inapplicable" things have been studied for thousands of years.

And it's not just about the Cosmos. Take biology and classification of species of plants and animals. Technologically, we may be using at most thousands of them. In the global economy, at most hundreds are really important. However, biologists know – and have named and studied – many more. They have named and classified 1.2 million species and the total number is unknown. It is estimated to be something in between two million and one trillion. At any rate, it is very clear that even most of the species studied by biologists are inconsequential for a "technological gap".

You could also estimate the percentage of "practically useful" scientific insights about a particular plant or animal. Or a chemical compound. Even if a plant is useful, you may use a part of a plant but others are useless. Most of the cellular processes are useless. Especially if you adopt the viewpoint of a single human or a company that does something, it's clear that a vast majority of the chemical reactions and many other things are useless for him or them.

We may generalize a lesson from the "cosmic sciences". Every scientific discipline that wants to clarify too distant history is practically "useless". Aside from the cosmic sciences and the life sciences, this list of "useless" disciplines also includes most of the Earth sciences. What is the technological gap people acquired when they studied the ice ages, snowball Earth, oxygenation? Or even some anthropology and many other things? What is the practical application of the Neanderthals or dinosaurs?

But it's not just the "historical" sciences where almost everything is practically useless. Sciences that study "too small" things and "too weak" effects are very likely to be useless, too. So let me quickly get to fundamental and particle physics.

While special relativity influences certain technologically useful situations and devices, it is "useless" in the sense that the behavior of the objects at high velocities could also be deduced by the "practical people" when they need it. Even if particles moving almost by the speed of light were "practically useful" in some way, and even that is debatable, people could learn what's happening with them at high speeds by simple observations. They would never need to generalize these laws too much.

Similarly, general relativity and its curved spacetime produce corrections e.g. to the GPS coordinates etc. That's great but even if people didn't know GR and weren't interested in GR, they would be able to see that the GPS ignoring GR produces some errors and they would rather easily find some rules-of-thumb to get rid of this error. If their curiosity were zero and they would only have the task to produce a useful GPS system, they could do it. The LHC experimenters actually sometimes use these practical man's "data-driven" methods to analyze the collisions, too. They basically extract the "right phenomenological theory" out of a piece of the data and try to test it for another piece. If they're not interested in the valid theories and principles of physics, they could individually do just fine.

Quantum mechanics has been immensely useful because some important inventions such as the transistor were really invented by physicists who knew what was happening inside and what they were doing. But physics including the "unified new foundations of physics" could have been avoided as well. Instead, various professionals could very well work with lots of ad hoc rules about how pieces of semiconductors behave in various situations that are needed. People could easily test what happens when you combine semiconductors in various ways and their goal could have always been some practical application. They wouldn't find any real "theories of physics" and they wouldn't need them. The progress would be awkward and slower in many cases but it would be possible.

The practical uselessness becomes even more obvious once we talk about quantum field theory and particle physics. One could pretty convincingly argue that even things like antimatter are useless. Loop corrections are useless. Precise QED or Standard Model calculations of anything are useless – we may just measure all these quantities if we need them for a technological application.

Now, Lambda hyperons and all hadrons – hundreds of particles – with the exception of protons and neutrons are useless. Much more generally, all short-lived (unstable) particles are useless. Pions are useless, even muons are useless, and the Higgs bosons are more useless than any other particles we have observed. Their lifetime is so short that they decay before they get to the other side of an atom. From any technological or applied viewpoint, the Higgs bosons don't really exist. Except that they tend to produce diphotons with a certain invariant mass. But diphotons with a given invariant mass are useless, too. Top quarks, W-bosons, and Z-bosons don't exist, either.

I could continue for hours but I hope it was enough to make the point. Most of the things that physics and most other sciences proudly studied and discovered in the 20th century (but also in most previous centuries) were practically useless. This statement was already right when all these "critics of science" were born. Nothing has qualitatively changed about any of these things in their lifetime. They were effectively born as science haters and remained science haters. The technological gap is associated with the human curiosity because of their interactions during the human evolution but the continued existence of the former simply cannot be said to be a condition for the latter. The latter is historically a side effect of the former but that doesn't mean that its existence eternally depends on the existence of the former.

No one is metaphysically obliged to pay for any activities of another person. (In practice, people are obliged to pay taxes etc. which do these things, anyway.) But even if someone can't do the scientific research or doesn't do it for hours every day, e.g. because he or she is "science-castrated" in the sense I have described above, he or she should still be able to understand that the scientific progress, regardless of the existence of any practical applications, is crucial for the humans to be humans. While not everyone contributes to the scientific progress, it is still critical for the people's and nations' self-worth or self-esteem.

And it's not just a subjective feeling. A nation or a civilization that would cease to be curious about how Nature works would objectively deteriorate. That would ultimately be visible in the very practical contexts, too. A civilization that would only have millions of ad hoc laws for various activities of particular companies etc. would be extremely dependent on the individuals who know, do, and understand something because people wouldn't understand anything else. In the absence of any "more universal scientific theories", all of the people would be extremely overspecialized. Also, such a nation or civilization would lose a big part of the truly great ambitions – and those are needed for the grand-scale technological progress. The web was invented at CERN and you have heard all these examples.

Someone could say that all the "science stuff" could have been avoided and smart people could have been gathered to invent something similar to the World Wide Web. Or, as someone tweeted, 100 string theorists should be rebranded as researchers into trash disposal. Why didn't he turn them into dustmen right away? You know, there's problem with that plan. First, the people gathered in this way wouldn't really be motivated. Second, no one would really have the scientific litmus test determining whether any progress is being made at all. Rulers could invent new and new plans. A horse into every family. Whatever. Then the horses would cease to be fashionable and be replaced by mules. Horses again, and so on.

So this is another reason why science is so essential that I haven't discussed. It allows us to see whether our world is getting better at all. In reality, the changes may be less obviously circular than the alternation of mules and horses. But the civilization may still be stuck in a loop from a scientific perspective – and a scientist is needed to see it. The purely practical world could very well be caught in loops. Because of the "practical uselessness" of all the historical sciences, remembering too much just isn't "useful". The totally practical people could be changing things all the time to be individually more competitive. But all the changes to the whole civilization could very well be a random walk that is basically stuck. Any well-informed thinking about the long-term plans – plans about the future that is long enough to make one sufficiently convinced that real progress will have taken place – unavoidably depends on some science.

OK, I've talked too much. In the real society, there are people who are directly curious in science and those who at least indirectly understand the value of the scientific progress – for its own sake. And then there are people who don't. All these groups have to co-exist. What I find absolutely essential for the health of the human civilization is to keep on assuring the latter group – the "curiosity-castrated" individuals – that they are not and they cannot be in charge of this civilization. The civilization doesn't belong to you, akidbelle et al. If you were born as a savage to a primitive tribe, the political affairs could belong to the likes of you. But you were born into an advanced civilization. You are a bunch of individuals whose intrinsic value is lower than the intrinsic value of the people in the curious groups. And those better groups exist even if you would like to deny their existence. The fact that you're treated on par with the curious human beings and not with pigs is just a social convention and it is obvious that this convention will have to be modified if you start to pose a real threat for the human civilization. Why? Because this luxurious status of yours doesn't lead to a technological gap. It also produces some other problems that you are probably not capable of understanding.

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