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.


Anonymous 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!

Wavefunction 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.

Anonymous 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.'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.

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.

Wavefunction said...

Secret confession: I am a 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.

Anonymous 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... 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.

Anonymous 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.

Anonymous said...

情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,美國aneros,rudeboy,英國rudeboy,英國Rocksoff,德國Fun Factory,Fun Factory,英國甜筒造型按摩座,甜筒造型按摩座,英國Rock Chic ,瑞典 Lelo ,英國Emotional Bliss,英國 E.B,荷蘭 Natural Contours,荷蘭 N C,美國 OhMiBod,美國 OMB,Naughti Nano ,音樂按摩棒,ipod按摩棒,美國 The Screaming O,美國TSO,美國TOPCO,美國Doc Johnson,美國CA Exotic,美國CEN,美國Nasstoy,美國Tonguejoy,英國Je Joue,美國Pipe Dream,美國California Exotic,美國NassToys,美國Vibropod,美國Penthouse,仿真按摩棒,矽膠按摩棒,猛男倒模,真人倒模,仿真倒模,PJUR,Zestra,適趣液,穿戴套具,日本NPG,雙頭龍,FANCARNAL,日本NIPPORI,日本GEL,日本Aqua Style,美國WET,費洛蒙,費洛蒙香水,仿真名器,av女優,打炮,做愛,性愛,口交,吹喇叭,肛交,魔女訓練大師,無線跳蛋,有線跳蛋,震動棒,震動保險套,震動套,TOY-情趣用品,情趣用品網,情趣購物網,成人用品網,情趣用品討論,成人購物網,鎖精套,鎖精環,持久環,持久套,拉珠,逼真按摩棒,名器,超名器,逼真老二,電動自慰,自慰,打手槍,仿真女郎,SM道具,SM,性感內褲,仿真按摩棒,pornograph,hunter系列,h動畫,成人動畫,成人卡通,情色動畫,情色卡通,色情動畫,色情卡通,無修正,禁斷,人妻,極悪調教,姦淫,近親相姦,顏射,盜攝,偷拍,本土自拍,素人自拍,公園露出,街道露出,野外露出,誘姦,迷姦,輪姦,凌辱,痴漢,痴女,素人娘,中出,巨乳,調教,潮吹,av,a片,成人影片,成人影音,線上影片,成人光碟,成人無碼,成人dvd,情色影音,情色影片,情色dvd,情色光碟,航空版,薄碼,色情dvd,色情影音,色情光碟,線上A片,免費A片,A片下載,成人電影,色情電影,TOKYO HOT,SKY ANGEL,一本道,SOD,S1,ALICE JAPAN,皇冠系列,老虎系列,東京熱,亞熱,武士系列,新潮館,情趣用品,情趣,情趣商品,情趣網站,跳蛋,按摩棒,充氣娃娃,自慰套,G點,性感內衣,情趣內衣,角色扮演,生日禮物,生日精品,自慰,打手槍,潮吹,高潮,後庭,情色論譠,影片下載,遊戲下載,手機鈴聲,音樂下載,開獎號碼,統一發票號碼,夜市,統一發票對獎,保險套,做愛,減肥,美容,瘦身,當舖,軟體下載,汽車,機車,手機,來電答鈴,週年慶,美食,徵信社,網頁設計,網站設計,室內設計,靈異照片,同志,聊天室,運動彩券,大樂透,威力彩,搬家公司,除蟲,偷拍,自拍,無名破解,av女優,小說,民宿,大樂透開獎號碼,大樂透中獎號碼,威力彩開獎號碼,討論區,痴漢,懷孕,美女交友,交友,日本av,日本,機票,香水,股市,股市行情, 股市分析,租房子,成人影片,免費影片,醫學美容,免費算命,算命,姓名配對,姓名學,姓名學免費,遊戲,好玩遊戲,好玩遊戲區,線上遊戲,新遊戲,漫畫,線上漫畫,動畫,成人圖片,桌布,桌布下載,電視節目表,線上電視,線上a片,線上掃毒,線上翻譯,購物車,身分證製造機,身分證產生器,手機,二手車,中古車,法拍屋,歌詞,音樂,音樂網,火車,房屋,情趣用品,情趣,情趣商品,情趣網站,跳蛋,按摩棒,充氣娃娃,自慰套, G點,性感內衣,情趣內衣,角色扮演,生日禮物,精品,禮品,自慰,打手槍,潮吹,高潮,後庭,情色論譠,影片下載,遊戲下載,手機鈴聲,音樂下載,開獎號碼,統一發票,夜市,保險套,做愛,減肥,美容,瘦身,當舖,軟體下載,汽車,機車,手機,來電答鈴,週年慶,美食,徵信社,網頁設計,網站設計,室內設計,靈異照片,同志,聊天室,運動彩券,,大樂透,威力彩,搬家公司,除蟲,偷拍,自拍,無名破解, av女優,小說,民宿,大樂透開獎號碼,大樂透中獎號碼,威力彩開獎號碼,討論區,痴漢,懷孕,美女交友,交友,日本av ,日本,機票,香水,股市,股市行情,股市分析,租房子,成人影片,免費影片,醫學美容,免費算命,算命,姓名配對,姓名學,姓名學免費,遊戲,好玩遊戲,好玩遊戲區,線上遊戲,新遊戲,漫畫,線上漫畫,動畫,成人圖片,桌布,桌布下載,電視節目表,線上電視,線上a片,線上a片,線上翻譯,購物車,身分證製造機,身分證產生器,手機,二手車,中古車,法拍屋,歌詞,音樂,音樂網,借錢,房屋,街頭籃球,找工作,旅行社,六合彩,水噹噹,台中隆鼻,果凍隆乳,改運整型,自體脂肪移植,新娘造型,婚禮顧問,下川島,常平,常平,珠海,澳門機票,香港機票,貸款,貸款,信用貸款,宜蘭民宿,花蓮民宿,未婚聯誼,網路購物,婚友,婚友社,未婚聯誼,交友,婚友,婚友社,單身聯誼,未婚聯誼,未婚聯誼, 婚友社,婚友,婚友社,單身聯誼,婚友,未婚聯誼,婚友社,未婚聯誼,單身聯誼,單身聯誼,白蟻,白蟻,除蟲,老鼠,減肥,減肥,在家工作,在家工作,水噹噹,台中隆鼻,果凍隆乳,改運整型,自體脂肪移植,新娘造型,婚禮顧問,下川島,常平,常平,珠海,澳門機票,香港機票,貸款,貸款,信用貸款,宜蘭民宿,花蓮民宿,未婚聯誼,網路購物,婚友,婚友社,未婚聯誼,交友,婚友,婚友社,單身聯誼,未婚聯誼,未婚聯誼, 婚友社,婚友,婚友社,單身聯誼,婚友,未婚聯誼,婚友社,未婚聯誼,單身聯誼,單身聯誼,白蟻,白蟻,除蟲,老鼠,減肥,減肥,在家工作,在家工作,婚友,單身聯誼,未婚聯誼,婚友,交友,交友,婚友社,婚友社,婚友社,大陸新娘,大陸新娘,越南新娘,越南新娘,外籍新娘,外籍新娘,台中坐月子中心,搬家公司,搬家公司,中和搬家,台北搬家,板橋搬家,新店搬家,線上客服,網頁設計,線上客服,網頁設計,植牙,關鍵字,關鍵字,seo,seo,網路排名,自然排序,網路排名軟體,交友,越南新娘,婚友社,外籍新娘,大陸新娘,越南新娘,交友,外籍新娘,視訊聊天,大陸新娘,婚友社,婚友,越南新娘,大陸新娘,越南新娘,視訊交友,外籍新娘,網路排名,網路排名軟體,網站排名優化大師,關鍵字排名大師,網站排名seo大師,關鍵字行銷專家,關鍵字,seo,關鍵字行銷,網頁排序,網頁排名,關鍵字大師,seo大,自然排名,網站排序,網路行銷創業,汽車借款,汽車借錢,汽車貸款,汽車貸款,拉皮,抽脂,近視雷射,隆乳,隆鼻,變性,雙眼皮,眼袋,牙齒,下巴,植牙,人工植牙,植髮,雷射美容,膠原蛋白,皮膚科,醫學美容,玻尿酸,肉毒桿菌,微晶瓷,電波拉皮,脈衝光,關鍵字,關鍵字,seo,seo,網路排名,自然排序,網路排名軟體,英語演講,托福,Toastmaster,汽車借款,汽車借款,汽車借款,汽車貸款,汽車貸款,借錢,借貸,當舖,借款,借貸,借錢,週轉,

Anonymous said...

Once I played Rom, I did not know how to get strong, someone told me that you must have Rom Gold. He gave me some Runes of Magic Gold, he said that I could buy Runes of Magic money, but I did not have money, then I played it all my spare time. From then on, I got some buy Rom Gold, if I did not continue to play it, I can sell cheap Runes of Magic Gold to anyone who want.