basic research

People like me who are doing basic research are often asked how our basic science research can be applied. Most of the time, we don’t know. Nobody knows. Maybe someday we will, maybe we won’t. This is not important. Why not?

Imagine you suddenly wake up naked in a rocky, sandy place, in the middle of nowhere. It’s really hot and you start sweating immediately. You have no idea where you are, or how you got there. What do you do? First, you will focus on survival. You will look for water, food and shelter. After some hours of walking, you find an oasis. Once you have everything you need to stay alive, you know that, if nothing else, you can remain in your current location indefinitely. You might start to wonder what happened: one minute you’re bouncing around the internet, the next you’re naked in the middle of nowhere. After you come to terms with the reality of the situation, you want to try and figure out where you are. You might try and look for clues from your environment or maybe a constellation you recognize, or you might decide to explore the immediate area to see if there’s anything around that could give you some clue on your location. After some time, your efforts reveal that you’re in the middle of an African desert and you found a big box of matches. You now have two choices: stay there and simply exist as long as you can, or attempt to get back to civilization; either option has its own risks.

If you choose to stay where you are, then that’s essentially it for you, you now know how your future will play out: you will remain at your current location until you either die of old age, or your area becomes unable to sustain life. Either way, the game is over for you; your entire existence becomes about survival, and you’re just running out the clock until, at some point in the future, you cease to exist. Maybe you decide to try and leave a message for someone to find in the future, maybe you are content to simply fade into oblivion; either way, your fate is sealed.

But of course you try and get back to civilization. There is no doubt about it. For this, you need to try and figure out where to go, and then of course, how to get there. After some preparations, you start walking. Now life ceases to be about mere survival and becomes a journey to get you where you want to go. Now you have something you are striving towards. You have a vision and you have hope to complete it.

This is the timeline of humanity. We woke up with nothing, on a little rock called Earth, in the middle of nowhere. We figured out how to survive and how to grow. We started exploring. We started trying to find out just exactly where we were in the Universe. We started trying to find out who we are and what makes us human. We figured out much of what makes the world we live in. We do not have use for all the information gathered along the way. We might use it someday or we might not. To me, this is not important. The most important thing is that humanity chooses a life beyond mere survival. That we choose to move forward, explore and expand. That although we might never understand how memories are stored in the brain and we might never walk on Mars, at least we are making the effort. That we have hope, that we have dreams.

The alternative is to simply run out the clock and wait to fade into oblivion.