Almost as a followup to our earlier post about How To Piss Off A Scientist, I ran across an article in Daily Beast – The Dumbest Question You Can Ask A Scientist. Kevin Ashton writes a terrific argument that the economic value of any type of basic science is as unknown as the potential discovery.
The dumbest question you can ask a scientist—or any other creator, inventor, or discoverer—about his or her work is, “What’s the economic value?”
Ashton includes historic scientific findings that at first seemed to have little or no economic value, but wound up having huge economic value – Hertz discovery of electromagnetic waves and Dobson’s discovery of atmospheric ozone.
Using quotes from physicist David Kaplan, in response to being asked what the value of finding the Higgs Bosun would be. Ashton examines the value of basic science more closely.
Add in the fact that the point of basic science is to know what’s unknown, and we see that the dumbest question requests the unknowable value of the unknowable consequences of an unknown thing.
The work of basic scientists like Hertz, Dobson, and Kaplan can only be driven by curiosity, not purpose. What is the value of a particular curiosity? There is no way to know in advance. Discovery is curiosity’s product; everything else, including immeasurable economic value, follows. We cannot know the worth of something we have not yet discovered. In science, as in all truly creative work, the joy is the rainbow, not the hope of gold at the rainbow’s end.