FuturesPosted: November 26, 2009
While sometimes I pretend to be cynical, I’m really an obnoxious romantic. See, I have a dream. I know what I want to do with my life, and I want to do it because I want to expand the pool of knowledge about the universe that humanity has a little further, and I have a particular area in which I wish to do this knowledge expanding in. I want to be a physicist.
Earlier today somehow this came up in discussion, at which one person opined that he didn’t think my particular area of interest was as worthwhile as, say, medical research. I was a bit miffed at this statement, and he proceeded to explain that medical research leads to cures which improve the human welfare, while my preferred area did not seem to have much more to offer technology-wise. Ignoring the question of the truth of that statement (which I think is emphatically false), this made me think a few things.
It’s usually easier to justify expenditure of resources in science than it is in the arts and humanities because of how technological innovation proceeds from science, while the arts and the humanities usually have to resort to some nebulous appeal to metaphysical perspectives on the human condition and hope that it gets through to the bureaucrats who make the funding decisions. However, in the end, technology is not why I want to do science. While I don’t pretend to speak for all people who want to be or are scientists, I suspect many of them don’t want to do science simply because of technology either.
I want to do science because I want to learn about the natural universe. I want to help humanity learn about the natural universe. The scale of the universe and its history, the behavior of subatomic particles, the chemistry of life, all inspire a great sense of awe and wonder. And, somehow, a tiny bit of matter in some incredibly tiny corner of the universe, less than a water molecule in the cosmological ocean, manages to become self-aware and gazes at the rest of the universe and asks, “why?”
I’m not trying to be callous when I say that I don’t care about the practical benefits of science as much as I care about expanding the breadth of human knowledge. Efforts to increase the overall welfare of humanity are very noble and should be lauded much more than they are now. One of our greatest failings is that we allow so much suffering to occur on our planet. However, improving the level of technological advancement and human welfare is not the only reason to do science, nor does it have to be the primary one for an aspiring scientist.