17 February 2017

Why do we need to research obscure subjects?

Isaac Newton
Many people asked me why scientists are wasting time studying irrelevant stuff. The answer is simple. The so-called basic science research is never irrelevant. It just takes time to develop a viable commercial application. Basic science is always the foundation of every applied science development. 

For example, Newton researched gravity centuries ago. And he did it purely for the sake of knowledge, aware that there was no chance for him nor his country to profit of the revolutionary discoveries he made. Today, our GPS and Satellite TV works today because Newton made that revolutionary discovery so long time ago.

Another example, till recently learning about the Sun was a purely intellectual exercise, firmly in the domain of the basic science. The basic scientific research is one that is done for the sake of the knowledge itself. But today, such research is cornerstone of the space exploration. 

Beecause knowledge about the Sun did not have any practical application, it developed rather slowly before space age.
Only when we learned that Sun has more effects on us than passive radiation and gravitation pull, the research intensified.
See, our current way of life, with all its technology depends heavily on what Sun will do.

SDO AIA 171 image of the Sun taken on Feb. 17th, 2017.
Courtesy of NASA's SDO mission

In the Sun's atmosphere storms are raging. Not at the time I'm writing this. Sun is quite peaceful now.
Sometimes those storms are so strong that they eject pieces of the Sun into the space around it. And sometimes those pieces hit us. In science, such events are called Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).
And most of today's Sun research is geared towards learning how those storms form, what supplies the energy to the storms and how to predict them.

When CME is ejected towards the Earth, trouble for us starts. Earth has a magnetic field that usually protects us from a significant amount of the radiation and stops solar wind to blow away our atmosphere. But CMEs are so strong that they squish our magnetic field and partially sneak inside the atmosphere.
All up our recent technological boom, the only consequence of the CME impact were magnificent Aurora's, but today, every time there is a storm on the sun we feel it.
Remember last time GPS showed crazy results, missing your location for a kilometer or so? Or your intercontinental flight got surprisingly longer? Well, most likely, there was a storm on the Sun that increased levels of charged particles ejected from the Sun causing few GPS satellites to malfunction and increased radio noise over the poles, forcing planes to avoid the area.
Stronger CME might burn out our satellites. And depending on the strength of the CME, even technology here on the surface of the Earth could burn out.
So being able to predict those storms seems like a splendid idea.

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