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The Sciences

Fundamental Research and the Technology in Your Life

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonAugust 30, 2005 6:45 AM


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On American Public Media's business and finance program, Marketplace earlier today, Lawrence Krauss gave a short commentary on how the results of esoteric and irrelevant-seeming research can show up in the technology we use in our everyday lives. It's been said before, but it is so important (in this climate of deep cuts into the funding for basic research) that it should be said again, several times. Find the audio for the story here. Some of his main points:

Cutting funding for fundamental research is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. But that's what we're doing. This fiscal year, the President's budget continues to cut funding for fundamental research at places like the National Science Foundation, and NASA...

and further...

The technological side effects of asking fundamental questions about Nature aren't the prime reasons to ask those questions in the first place, but they sure are a good reason not to stop.....

He mentions, for example, the fact that while the results of Einstein's Special and General Relativity might seem irrelevant to our everyday lives, he would not have been able to get around LA without them, since the GPS system in his car relies on accurately synchronized clocks on the GPS satellites in orbit*. These clocks run differently than they would on the surface of the earth since they are moving rapidly, and are at different places in the earth's gravitational field. The relativistic corrections are small, but important enough to get your GPS positioning wrong if you don't take it into account. (See a nice page -by Richard Pogge of Ohio State University- about this issue here, and for a more technical discussion, see the Living Review by Neil Ashby.) So who knows what else we're working on that might well be in everybody's back pocket one day? This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotes from the great Michael Faraday, one of the giants that helped shape our modern understanding of electricity and magnetism (see a nice BBC History website about him here). He was asked by the British Chancellor (Gladstone at the time) about what was the use of this electricity he was working on. His reply was "I do not know sir, but I wager that one day you will put a tax on it". I use that quote quite often, when giving public lectures on contemporary research. So come and tell us here at Cosmicvariance about your favourite examples of everyday benefits of "blue sky" research. I can think of several straightforward ones (in medicine, communications, - this very meduim in fact!), but I bet you can think of more interesting and possibly unexpected ones than I can! -cvj (*Ok, so LA is not as complicated to get around as all that, especially if you have a Thomas guide, but you get the idea....)

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