The Value of Curiosity-Driven Research

Many, many ideas have come out of basic science over the centuries that initially seemed like idle curiosities.

Neutrino research is fundamental basic science.  It’s part of this human endeavor to understand our natural environment and make sense of it, to understand our own origins and how we fit into the big picture in a cosmic context. 

Since neutrinos are the most abundant type of matter particle, if you want to know how our universe works we need to understand them.  We need to make sense of their behaviors, their quirky behaviors.  The chameleon-like tendency to morph into three different flavors.  What does that mean?  How does it work and what does that tell us about the fundamental nature of matter in general?

But the other reasons are that there might someday be potential practical applications of neutrino physics.  Many, many ideas have come out of basic science over the centuries that initially seemed like idle curiosities. And yet, over time, with a bit of ingenuity on the part of different groups of people, these ideas turned out to be really, really useful and essential.  

Electricity is one example.  It was discovered by Faraday by playing with a coil and a magnet and seeing that the relative motion of these two things produced a current.  And at first it wasn’t clear of what use it would be. All around us now we really do depend on electricity for our modern lives.

So often it’s not easy to tell which particular line of inquiry would lead you to a practical application fastest or what will become the most valuable or profitable kinds of application.  But generally the idea of curiosity-driven research is that it explores nature and our place within it, and that can often lead to practical benefits.  But it’s also, I think, a really important and integral part of who we are – human culture.  So it’s a cultural activity as much as it is sort of an activity that is looking for practical benefits. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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