Monday, May 07, 2007

What’s the purpose of studying this?

I’m often asked by (my non-scientist) friends or family what exactly I study. My answers vary in sophistication, from something outrageous (“I’m going to cure cancer in a few months”) to something more specific. Sometimes, some friends are more curious, and want to know gory details. So, I provide them.

Sometimes they understand and nod their heads acceptingly as I talk about basic research and looking for new mechanisms in basic biology. But invariably the question pops up “but what’s the use of studying this? Is it for making some drug or something? Otherwise, why study it?”.

My usual response would vary from describing the philosophies of science and the quests for new discoveries, to warm and fuzzy statements on the importance of furthering knowledge which may not be applicable for anything right now, but may be useful years down the line. Some fields of science are easy for people to wrap their minds around, and decide it is important. In others, it is not as obvious.

These statements are usually met with blank stares, skepticism, or, more often, a pitying nod that would translate to “you poor fool, why don’t you do something useful”. My friends who work in software or hardware technologies are particularly harsh, since they are used to pressing deadlines and bringing out and shipping products in finite time spans of months at most. They persist with questions like “so, will the stuff you’re doing be useful in 5 years time? Ten years? If you don’t know, why don’t you work on something more pressing, important and useful, like actually trying to cure cancer?”

Ah, well, in order to “cure” a disease, you need to actually know enough about it in order to do something about it. And finding out enough (where enough is so relative) to do something about it means you need to poke around asking different questions, which will all lead you down diverse paths. Most of them will not give you what you are looking for, but the knowledge you’ve gained will open up new fields and those may result in important discoveries that benefit mankind. What’s more, some of the biggest breakthroughs about basic concepts in biology, that have gone on to have a huge impact on human medicine have come not from studying human problems, but by studying yeast, or flies, or frogs, or worms, or mice.

The joy is in the quest for knowledge. As new knowledge is gained, applications for that knowledge will evolve on its own.

16 comments:

MadGenius said...

Have had such experiences myself, especially with the 'techie' crowd.

i just remind them that if they had asked such questions at the turn of the last century - when quantum physics was coming into focus, they wouldn't be doing what they are doing now.

as for those who say 'why don't you solve something?', I generally say that for most things, the solutions are already there.

CuriousCat said...

A common problem for all scientists, to explain to the society that is supporting us why we do what we do. And if I have to give a time line for when something I am doing is going to be useful, 300 years comes up as a minimum in my head!

Ashutosh said...

No offense intended, but there are also those in the techie crowd (and it's a minority I am talking about) who think that because they are getting paid so well, what they are doing must be terribly important. Well, it is important in a way, but again, with no offense intended, so is what the plumber does.

Arunn said...

In the same breath of the antagonists of this post, we can as well ask "of what use is a new born child, right then, right there at the hospital bed?"

OR to paraphrase Kepler, what answer a bird can give if one were to ask to it (bird), why it sings?

to give another (random) example (form the top of my head) in the lines of Mad Genius above, when matrices were "invented", little it was realized that they would be used in quantum mechanics; so it can be told about differential geometry, until general relativity showed its potential; so is the case with probability and statistical mechanics of Boltzmann; so is the case with fullerenes and carbon nano-tubes to an extent...

Euclid, I guess, asked to pay some money to the student and send him away from school, when he wondered about the use of what he (student) is studying at Eculid's school (geometry and things). If I remember reasonably, Euclid said, once he (student) has started wondering about the use, the subject will no longer be interesting for its own sake or something similar.

Sunil said...

madgenius....I think there will always be a lot of people asking "why you do it". Hopefully, scientists will be able to convince society that their work may not appear to be important, but the acquisition of knowledge never is.

CC....300 years. Hmmmm....you're a pessimistic physicist :-)

Ashutosh....actually, on a day to day basis, what the plumber does is a lot more important than what you and I do. Imagine life without water from the tap, or no flush toilets. You greatly overrate the techie, and do a great injustice to the plumber.

Arunn...Euclid had some pretty decent thoughts (there's my understatement for the day). There are no shortages of examples of how discoveries have gone on to be useful. Even say when man discovered fire. He (or she) probably realized early that it was good for heat and light, but probably took centuries to realize you could use it to cook food :-)

Anyway.....we'll always love science, won't we?

Amrit said...

Hi Sunil.

It's taken us, as humans, thousands of years to understand things that we consider elementary now. People don't understand that any invention, any cure, doesn't necessarily revolve around a focused subject. Thousands of related parameters too need to be taken into consideration, and I think that's what the ongoing research does.

Amrit
Writing Cave

Sunil said...

amrit...that is precisely what science and discovery is all about. And everyone (the greater public, who are not scientists) needs to appreciate that.

Ashutosh said...

Secret confession: I am a plumber...no really

Navneet said...

got to stumble on your blog by accident...but here's something that happened to me.

i was studying muscular development during a summer internship and my cousin asked me this: so tell me? this muscle stuff you're studying about, will it help body builders??

thats when i got to know, the 'aam junta' really doesn't know what science is all about and frankly they think its utter crap, that most of what is know in medical sciences is due to medical doctors and not scientists.

Govind said...

LOL - this has to be the ego boosting trip for the PhD folks. We are grateful to you and predecessors who did not have to do PhDs etc :) to justify the intelligence they are blessed with. Honestly a person like gauss/newton/einstein were few. Now we are left with another million odd PhDs/researchers who are trying to make new discoveries, methods on these gaint's shoulders. I personally think the relative peace of 50 years has resulted in proliferation of plumbers - poor me and scientists

Aam junta - is your own family :) - you might notice wife who is artist and daughter who loves history (cringe -cringe) .Please do not hate us :) , we are like this only. First we did not get the intelligence then we killed the curiosity before it blossomed and now we are doing regular clerk job. Just supporting the family. Booh whooo.....what a life...has to do with reincarnation.

Sunil said...

ashutosh...be proud of who you are :-)
Sakthi, interesting thoughts. There is some truth to that.

navneet...that is a very, very sorry reflection of society (if true). I think most doctors themselves have a very poor understanding of science (and don't always understand the scientific method well).

hmm.....govind, all very funny, but there's nothing I said about hating what anyone else does. I have no problem with anything else, would quite possibly have done some of those things if I hadn't drifted into science, and fully support all those exercises. This is hardly an ego booster....if it is so hard to explain what you do, and then no one really cares about it. It's more depressing than anything else.

Govind said...

Sunil - apologies - I did not mean it in demeaning way. I was just trying to lighten up the conversation. Guess hit the wrong spot. Oops.
I feel (or our tribe) used to feel the some sense of accomplisment, but trust me the frustrations are the same, when for all the advances you can't reliably say a given piece of code (forget platform/language etc) will work the same after 30 years. The eternal piece is missing. The sense of accomplishment dies the moment you scale the peak which you considered the biggest for a period of time.

But in general - people do not understand your work - you need not despair, we were not gifted enough to understand or comment on it. (frankly you do not need other folk's opinions or understanding, you are anyway knocking on unknown door, I guess and hopefully sure you enjoy that part) or you do not need to be appreceated. Really, how many of us understand the logic a doctor depends on life and death decision. Try getting one of those friends to talk. You will appreciate that we take that all for granted. I guess I am all senile now - but last thing you want to depend on is other folks. Somebody elsewhere made the right comment, techies jobs are plumbers. I would say they are worse.
But no other job is bad or lower :). Maybe once you reach another milestone you can start thinking about whether you need to explain it? Maybe try taking a few classes undergrad/school kids and get them excited. Becuase rest of the folks are already moulded, no point trying to talk to them.

Bottom line - most of the sane people appreciate the work scientists do even if they do not understand it. Please do not expect them to understand it also :). (Please forgive me for making that comment about hating - that was just banter).

Sunil said...

govind.....i wasn't offended at all. It's free speech here, so feel free to say what ever's on your mind. And you do make some points here....I mean, what i do isn't really "practical" or of any immediate use to anyone.

For a roof on head said...

Practical use today - no possibly. Tommorow - yes possibly

Even if nothing else - a way to tackle a problem would have been verified/discarded?

I do envy the fun you folks have while tackling the unknown and breaking down the barriers. That is something most normal folks never get chance to work on. Ever.

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