What good is basic research? After all, paying a bunch of eggheads to sit around labs in Oxford and Cambridge scratching their heads over the nature of fundamental particles is hardly going to put the UK manufacturing industry back on a firm footing is it?
Shouldn’t we be spending some of our taxes keeping what’s left of our manufacturing industry from migrating to China instead?
I don’t think so. And if we check out our scientific heritage over the past hundred years or so, we can see why.
Let’s look, for example, at the work of Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, who was appointed the Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge in 1933, a post he held for 37 years.
Prior to gaining that position, in 1928 in fact, Dirac mathematically predicted the existence of the anti-electron, the positron – a particle with the same mass but opposite charge to the electron. Five years later, the positron was actually detected by a chap called Anderson, from the study of cosmic rays arriving from space.
Of what practical use this might have thought to have been at the time, one can only conjecture. But look what happened over the next fifty years.
As a direct result of Dirac’s work, engineers and scientists went on to develop Positron Emission Tomography, a non invasive, diagnostic imaging technique for measuring the metabolic activity of cells in the human body. How does it work? A positron-emitting radioisotope is administered to a patient by injection or inhalation. The isotope then circulates through the bloodstream to reach, for example, brain tissue or cardiac muscle. As positron annihilation occurs (when an electron hits the positron), energy is given off and the tomograph detects the isotope’s location and concentration. Obviously rather useful, I would say.
Since Dirac’s day, engineers, scientists and mathematicians have determined the existence of all sorts of new particles, like quarks for example. And as far as I can tell at the moment, we have still got a long way to go before we can use our knowledge of them to benefit mankind.
But maybe we will one day. And in order to do so, we must keep funding the scientists who are performing fundamental research. We must keep building those rather expensive supercolliders to continue our research in particle physics, even if it all seems a bit pie in the sky right now. Fifty years from now, it won’t be.
QED, I’d say.