In an era in which people work before they study, form relationships before they get acquainted, divorce before they marry, sell their company before they exhaust the market opportunities, talk before they think, and in brief, finish before they start – I find it harder and harder for people to understand why I chose to become a scientist, or as my uncle used to term it – the kind of doctor who doesn’t make anyone feel better, an astrophysicist, moreover, who studies black holes, supernovae, and how in heaven’s name the heavy elements reached intergalactic space.
Even in the magnificent ancient civilizations of Egypt and Greece, not to mention the people of Israel, the moment the wars died down, the moment food was ample, the distinguished few turned to philosophy and research. Why? Simply because it was interesting.
Curiosity is an innate characteristic of men and women. Even people who are able to grasp applied science and technology have difficulties savoring the virtue of basic research whose sole purpose is to uncover the hidden and understand what is not yet understood, merely because it is there.
I have been asked more than once: For this you are paid a salary?
In a very deep sense, applied science is an oxymoron. The purpose of science is to understand the unknown; how can one apply what one does not know and does not understand? I am not speaking only about the exact sciences, of course. “Simply, because it is interesting” is also true in reference to how the body of a mosquito functions, where King Herod is buried and why, and what was the influence of the idol-worshipping Canaanites on culture of the Israelites during the period of the Scriptures.
It is interesting that the nations and states that could afford to delve into basic research, philosophy and the humanities, that is, into the supposedly least practical of all areas, are the same ones that were especially developed during their eras, even if the causal context is not entirely clear. Perhaps because potentially more is unknown than is known and applied, perhaps because despite this, there is an added value to the deep inquiry that demands people invest many years and resources into the endeavor of research, even today.
There are numerous examples of completely surprising applications of research carried out merely for curiosity’s sake, with no clear applicable objective in mind: x-rays, GPS, penicillin, Teflon, and a whole slew of medications, chemical elements, and new materials. Think for a moment how our lives would be like without all these discoveries, without, that is, the research leading up to them? How exactly did the basic research end up with these surprising applications? Go and find out, simply because, simply because it is interesting.
Professor of Physics and the head of the Asher Space Research Institute