Science is one of the first things that nonreligious parents want to share with their kids. I have multiple friends with kids whose first or middle name is Darwin or Sagan or Tesla. There are now board books introducing babies to quantum physics, relativity, and organic chemistry, I am not kidding. Google Baby University, if you haven’t seen these, they are actually very cool. You now have a baby gift for little Hawking Hubble Johnson. You’re welcome.
So I know you don’t need to be convinced to talk to your kids about science. We do that early and well. But scientific research divides into two types, and even science enthusiasts often spend a lot more time dazzling their kids and each other with one type at the expense of the other.
That type is applied research.
Two kinds of science
Applied research is sexy and amazing because it solves problems. You can see the results. When you want to impress someone with science, you point to footprints on the Moon, the polio vaccine, airplanes, computers, open-heart surgery. Applied research gave us those things by starting with a problem and figuring out a way to solve it. It has made our lives longer and better and smarter and more comfortable and interesting. Applied research is a good thing.
But there’s another kind of research that we need to include in our stories to our kids, especially when they are young. It’s sometimes called basic or pure or fundamental research. The British call it blue skies research, which is wonderful.
But maybe the best name for it is curiosity-driven research.
Curiosity-driven research is undertaken with no specific problem to solve. It’s driven by a question, not a practical need. As you might’ve guessed from the name, the motivation is curiosity itself, the simple idea that a particular thing is worth knowing for its own sake. We are asking something just because we want to know the answer.
Most physics is curiosity-driven. The fact that the CERN particle accelerators were ever built—9 billion dollars in initial costs for the Large Hadron Collider alone, funded by 22 national governments for the sole purpose of slamming subatomic particles together to see what happens—the fact that this was ever created, not to mention the Hubble telescope and Cassini probe and the James Webb Space Telescope and ten thousand other blue-sky projects, is a testament to our collective desire to understand the universe in which we live, even at great expense, even if we gain nothing more than that understanding.
But because it lacks a practical outcome, basic or fundamental or curiosity-driven research is often unpopular with taxpayers and foundations. It’s the first thing to be mocked by a politician scoring cheap points off of an opponent, the hardest research to get funded and the first to be defunded. Its defenders almost always defend it by saying that curiosity-driven research often leads eventually to practical applications. The third sentence in the Wikipedia article for basic research says “though often driven by curiosity, basic research often fuels the technological innovations of applied science.” It always comes off as apologetic for the idea that knowledge is worth pursuing for its own sake.
There’s an anecdote about Isaac Newton found in a friend’s diary. He tutored math at Cambridge, and when a student one day asked Newton how he would ever use this knowledge in his life, it struck Newton as such a ludicrous question that he began laughing—not a common sensation for Newton, by all accounts—and couldn’t stop. He had to end the lesson and motion the student out the door so he could recover.
It’s not even limited to science. I used to fight this battle when I was a college professor teaching music theory, and I had students constantly asking how they would ever use music theory in their lives. I would always say, “You won’t. You almost certainly won’t. But you will know something that very few people on Earth know. Everyone loves music, in part because it can make you feel intense emotions. By the end of this course, you will know a hundred different ways that music takes you through an emotional landscape. I’ll play Barber’s Adagio for Strings for you on the last day, a piece of music that has no lyrics, no story, not even a suggestive title, but it will bring most of you to tears when I play it, and you will know why, and it will STILL bring you to tears! And I can almost promise that you will never get any practical benefit from that knowledge in your life and still be glad to have it.”
This article is a love letter to knowledge for its own sake, and the curiosity that brings us that knowledge. And there’s no better story about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake for our kids to hear than the story of Guillaume le Gentil.
Mostly, we were just curious
Guillaume le Gentil was a French astronomer living in the 18th century. Now there were a lot of practical problems in need of applied research during this time. Chronic hunger and malnutrition were endemic even in the developed world. Infant mortality was high. Cholera and typhus were rampant in overcrowded cities. And…we didn’t know how far our planet was from the Sun.
When you put things like that together in a list, the last one looks ridiculous. There was no practical reason that we needed to know how far the earth was from the sun. Oh, there was some talk of how it would aid navigation, but that was tacked on. Mostly, we were just curious. It seemed like something worth knowing.
And way back in 1691, the astronomer Edmond Halley had suggested a way we could figure it out. All you’d have to do, he said, was send scientific teams to locations around the world to measure the exact time that Venus crossed into and out of the disc of the Sun—something called the Transit of Venus. Each observer would note the exact time Venus crossed into the disc and out of it. Using that data in combination with the distances between observation points, you can calculate the angles and legs of long triangles going to those two points on the Sun and figure out how far away it is. Cool, right?
A few problems:
First, the Transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun happens only twice every 121 years, in pairs eight years apart. The next transit was due to happen 70 years after Halley’s suggestion was made, in 1761, followed by another in 1769.
Second problem was finding a way for teams around the world to know the accurate time down to the second in 1761.
Third problem: Getting people scattered all around the globe in 1761 at all.
But a few years before the 1761 transit, the Royal Society put out the call for scientists willing to participate in the biggest example of blue skies research ever conceived. The response was incredible. 120 observers from 9 countries ended up going to 62 separate locations including Calcutta, Siberia, Newfoundland, Capetown South Africa, and locations all across Europe.
If you’ve read Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, you know that one of these guys was Guillaume Le Gentil.
Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisière left France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from Pondicherry, India. But The Seven Years’ War was raging between Britain and France at the time, and his ship encountered a naval battle just off the coast of India. Undeterred, he transferred to a frigate that would take him around the battle, but that ship was blown off course and lost at sea for five weeks. They arrived at Pondicherry two months before the transit but learned that the British had captured the city, so the frigate had to return to its point of origin, the island now known as Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar, 2692 miles away.
Le Gentil figured he would just take his observations from Mauritius. But on the day of the transit, they were within sight of land, but still on the sea. And because of the rolling of the ship’s deck, it was impossible to take the measurements.
Now any normal person would cut his losses and head home to his wife and his day job. But le Gentil figured hey, there’s another Transit of Venus in eight years…
Now as this story continues, I want you to remember the purpose of this expedition. Le Gentil is just one of 120 observers throwing his body and his equipment around the globe in search of a number—the distance of Earth from the Sun.
He caught the next boat to Pondicherry where he built a first-rate observatory and spent eight years testing and retesting his instruments. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day. He set up his instruments and waited for the moment, the preparation for which had consumed a decade of his life. And just as Venus began its pass, the only cloud in an otherwise blue sky slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.
Stoically, le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port. But en route he contracted dysentery and was bedridden for nearly a year. He finally made it onto a ship, which was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting out, and having achieved nothing, not even a contribution to the blue sky question, he discovered that the French Royal Society had kicked him out, his wife had remarried, and his relatives had him declared dead and divided up his estate.
Undeterred, he got another job, got remarried himself, and lived a happy, productive life for another 21 years.
I love that story. It’s just a painfully perfect illustration of the curiosity-fueled drive to know.
Oh, and what did we learn from the experiment itself? Well enough teams actually did get in place for that transit and the one in 1769 to establish that the sun was a mean distance of 93.727 million miles from Earth. Modern measurements using radar have confirmed that they were off by less than 0.08%. From there, they were able to calculate the distance of every other visible object in the solar system.
Our curiosity led to the beginnings of an accurate sense of our tiny place in the cosmos, a perspective that doesn’t have a practical application but is essential to understanding who we are.
Now if you need something more concrete to come out of curiosity-driven basic research, I have some examples of those as well.
AIDS was first observed in 1981, and doctors and researchers had no idea what was causing the symptoms they saw. Two years later, two researchers who were not trying to find the cause of AIDS found the cause of AIDS—the HIV retrovirus.
Before that, no one knew that humans even had retroviruses. Within 10 years, researchers found the first successful therapy to manage the disease. The team that found HIV was doing curiosity-driven basic research to learn about viruses that could produce DNA from RNA. And they stumbled on the crucial first step in this disease therapy.
This kind of basic research is the driving force behind almost all applied research.
When Harvard microbiologist Jon Beckwith and his team isolated the first gene from the bacteria E. coli, he said they “just wanted to see if it could be done.” Their work on how to isolate the gene gave birth to the fields of genetic engineering and biotechnology, which among other things is now proving to be a powerful tool against the effects of climate change on essential crops worldwide.
It’s impossible to predict what is and what isn’t going to have translational value. But Congress is forever threatening funding for basic research, mocking federal grants for work that doesn’t have an obvious immediate benefit. A few years ago, the British Parliament passed a law requiring that government-funded research show a likely “immediate impact.” A study from about 20 years ago that figured out why woodpeckers don’t get headaches is one of the classics held up to ridicule. And I can immediately imagine translational benefit from that one.
Almost all products and tools that have an impact on human life, from iPods to airplanes, have relied on discoveries originally made through curiosity-based research.
But again—even if such research never produces a single practical application, closing the gaps in our knowledge, bit by bit, is still worth the effort all by itself because it changes our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
And one of the best things you can do to encourage that understanding is to raise kids to whom knowledge is valuable both for what it can do for us and for its own sake.