“Innovation is serendipity, so you don’t know what people will make.”
On 12 November 2014 the spacecraft Rosetta landed the lander module Philae on the comet 67P. The 20year old mission was orchestrated by the ESA (European Space Agency), cost roughly 1.4 billion euros and aimed at better understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system. Before even the scientists’ and the public’s enthusiasm cooled down, off the often-heard voices went complaining about our avocation with a vague, and, to many, incomprehensible, contribution to science and about the assignment of so many human and financial resources to it, at the same time when “there are starving children in Africa”.
“Let’s first solve our earthly problems and then we can worry about the sun and the stars”, they usually say. I find this viewpoint rather unappealing and shallow, but also the result of little knowledge on the issues. Science has always been giving humankind a sense of awe and humility that are incalculably useful and enrich our lives and thought. Scientific revelations are the art of nature (the magical images of the HUBBLE telescope come to mind), and those who claim that the only reason of research should be utilitarian have a clearly wrong view on both its true cost and its actual benefits. In the example of Rosetta, if we allocate the 1.4 billion euros to every European citizen per year, for the 20 years that were needed to finalize the mission, the cost is a few cents of a euro per person. In reality, the cost of doing research is quite small and the budget for science is disappointingly low, since it is these negative voices that are gaining ground in the decision making centers of allocating national or multinational resources. In reality, ESA, NASA, CERN and every other research center you have, and have not, heard of, absorbs a minimal percentage of the national budget of all countries involved in them.
As for the benefits, they are countless, although many times obscure. Thanks to NASA, for example, and its invention of the digital image processing to enhance pictures of the moon, the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was created. The heart pump that makes life bearable while waiting for a heart transplant (and sometimes makes the need for a transplant redundant) was based on a space shuttle’s fuel pumps. Other times, the practical benefits of a NASA invention are more directly targeted for a public use, like the experiments on cancer cells in a low-gravity environment, in order to examine cell behavior usually masked by responses to gravity and, therefore, easier to study and understand in such environments. Or when NASA, in order to secure the high quality of the water consumed by astronauts, invented water filters later used in houses, sometimes in areas where they are necessary for the consumption of water coming from chemically polluted underground reservoirs; and, yes, they also help African children drink clean water. So it isn’t the case that, as humanity, we ignore the needs of vulnerable groups of people in favor of studying space. The budgets are enough for both uses, while doing non-utilitarian research refuels the betterment of living conditions of those in direct need, through technological achievements.
This procedure of inventing useful and necessary items or methods that make life easier or bearable, through apparently needless research, has given us a plethora of many well-known innovations, whose origin we simply ignore; and this is, indeed, an old story.
In the 17th century, Newton was mesmerized by the movement of the planets, until one of his friends challenged him to explain it mathematically. After some time, he illustrated the elliptical orbit of the planets –and, in order to explain it, he had to come up with calculus. Newton, obviously, did not set out to invent calculus, but simply followed his interests, guided only by his curiosity, he was led to a discovery that is used in economics, construction, information science and elsewhere. Some, at his time, might say he was just wasting his time; while he should open an accounting office as he was good at numbers, or something.
In order for the GPS to work, certain phenomena the theories of general and special relativity describe have to be taken into account. The GPS needs three satellites that locate a point on the surface of the earth at the same time. Einstein predicted that two clocks in two different gravity fields (like the one on the surface of the earth and the other in orbit) and/or with different speeds, show a different time. Given the fact, then, that the time shown by our clock has to be synched with the time shown by the clock on a satellite, if we take no account for the differences that arise due to the different gravity pulls and the different speed that the four clocks have (three on satellites and the one that we have on our GPS device), our GPS device would show our position on earth with a variation of many kilometers, making the data practically useless. (Obviously, the existence of the satellites themselves is a result of space research as well, with all the other benefits they give us). Einstein not only did not have this use in mind when he came up with his theories, but the reason he was fascinated on this subject matter was a ‘childish’ question he posed to himself: “How would the world look like to me if I was riding a beam of light?”
In the late 1970s, an NASA engineer, hard of hearing himself, disenchanted by the analog hearing aids of his time, applied his knowledge of electronic sensing systems, telemetry, and sound and vibration sensors, to invent digital cochlear implants, that help thousands of people either born deaf or who have lost or impaired their hearing in the course of their lives.
Ancient papyri that were found in the ruins of the Vesuvius explosion (and that would otherwise not have survived) cannot be read with the naked eye, as the black ink of the texts is the same as the black color of the charred papyrus. The ancient treasure consists of an entire home library of ancient books by Epicurus, Philodemus and many others. The only way to read them is with the use of NASA’s spectral imaging technique, to differentiate between the frequency of the ink and that of the papyrus. The appropriate machines were invented within NASA’s space program. We can therefore say that, in about 20 years, we will be able to read plenty of ‘new’ epicurean books.
Sunglasses were improved by NASA in two ways; in their flexibility so that scratching marks are reduced and in their effectiveness so that they protect our eyes better. Their inspiration was they eyes of predators that contain droplets to filter harmful radiation, allowing only specific wavelengths of light through. So, NASA added filters on the astronauts’ helmets to reflect UV radiation, a technology used in, besides sunglasses, welding masks.
So we cannot demand from scientists to aim at inventions with a clear, direct and everyday benefit in our lives (like, say, a better toaster…). Scientists should feel free to investigate whatever interests them and they deem important for the general knowledge of humanity –and this will eventually grade down (or up) to the betterment of our everyday lives. When CERN was founded nobody expected the internet as we know it to be conceived within it. But it was Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web and, in doing so, access to the internet was made free for public use. Even the well-known Viagra pill was invented by Pfizer by accident, when the subjects of an experiment for a medicine directed to cure angina revealed the symptoms we now know as the result of taking a Viagra pill. Scientific discoveries can come from the most unlikely sources (the first association of lung cancer and smoking and the invention of the term “passive smoker” was made by Nazi scientists, who were also the first to ban smoking in public places and demonized it with propaganda), and, so, we cannot tie the hands of researchers demanding from them a report of future financial benefits in advance, but we ought to create a vast field of scientific investigation, as free and independent as possible.
In 1831, Faraday proved that a magnet could produce electrical power showing, in this way, that magnetism and electricity are linked, and that together they consist one of the four fundamental forces of physics, electromagnetism. It is said that when King Wilhelm the Fourth asked Faraday what the use of all these scientific toys was, he got the answer: “I don’t know, your highness, but I know that one day you will tax them”. He was right, since the importance of the applications of electromagnetism is colossal, as in the electrical motor and the power generator.
Smoke detectors, water heaters, wireless technology, improved technology for producing car tires, chemical detection technology, sportswear, firefighting gear and many others, are technological achievements we owe to NASA’s space program, and they are priceless, even if they are seen strictly as means to make profit.
The examples are endless. You can find some more here: