We scientists tend to speak about our work in terms of trying to solve certain problems; for instance, you might have heard about the protein folding problem or (more exotically) the quantum gravity problem. But how do we justify working on these problems in the face of problems like hunger or poverty? – Aren’t those problems more important, or at the very least, more pressing? And if scientists are so good at solving problems like protein folding, then why aren’t they applying their tremendous powers to trying to solve problems like hunger? – How many more people could we help (and save) if we were doing that instead? Is it selfish to be a scientist?
This is a question that has often weighed on me. I’ve been thinking about it more recently with the arrival of a new roommate, a human biology major at Stanford, whose concern about global public health is nothing short of inspiring. She represents science in action; I am science of the ivory tower. She represents science in the service of man; I am science in the service of… I’m not quite sure what.
Questions like these disturb many scientists because they create cognitive dissonance between our (generally) progressive liberal world-views and the work which occupies our day-to-day lives.
The prototypical scientific apologia goes: “Science leads to technology.” For instance, the discovery of nuclear spin and magnetic resonance led to one of medicine’s most significant imaging modalities (MRI). Our hope is to blow the critic away with the Protean force that is Western science of the past two centuries. And then the apology ends by bringing it back to one’s own research: “For all you know,” says the defensive scientist, “Understanding protein folding could lead us to the cure to Alzheimer’s.” Take that.
But there are multiple flaws with this apology.
First of all, not all technologies are good (e.g., the discovery of the atomic nucleus led to the atomic bomb).
Secondly, science is science and technology is technology. They’re not the same thing. You wouldn’t say (or at least, I wouldn’t say) that solving world hunger or narrowing the rich–poor gap is good because it would lead to a stronger economy. It’s good just because it’s good – in other words, it’s good because it’s consistent with our values. In other words, this apology is not defending science on its own terms, but only because of what it can lead to. Moreover, this apology is really only defending the subsection of science that leads to technology (e.g., applied science and engineering). The simple fact of the matter is that most scientific discoveries do not lead to technologies; only a lucky (or unlucky, for that matter) subset do.
The road-less-taken apology (which I sometimes make) invokes the universality of Wonder as a quintessential human emotion. Science speaks to us at a basic level – it doesn’t feed the hunger of our stomach, but it nourishes the hunger of our minds. “And isn’t that important too?” I say. “As humans, could we bear to live in a world in which only our basic needs are met?” Taking the apology back to the scientist’s own research: Protein folding is just so incredible – it appears to get so close to violating the laws of thermodynamics, but then it makes you do a double-take. “It would theoretically take the lifespan of multiple universes for a protein to locate its native conformation amidst all the other possible conformations it could exist in… and yet the proteins we find in Nature only need a few milliseconds to do this. Proteins are only held together with the weakest of forces – constantly at the precipice of falling apart – and yet they make spider silk as strong as steel and they give our cells the strength to exert mechanical forces too.” Trying to figure out protein folding combines the satisfaction of solving a really difficult puzzle with the entertainment of watching an action-packed movie.
But this apology is far from perfect too. Wonder is personal. Not all of us share the same sense of wonder. More importantly, this apology even reeks slightly of an intellectual hedonism – it’s saying that science is almost like a luxury product that those who do not need to be preoccupied with the fundamentals can indulge in.
For me at least, it sometimes seems that the scientist’s condition is existentially schizoid: oscillating from the high of being able to justify oneself to oneself and the whole world… to the low of not being able to justify any of what one does to the world, let alone to oneself.
But perhaps, this is not the plight of only the scientist, but all of us.