19 June 2017

Science Fiction and Science

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 I watched the next episode of Star Trek TNG because of the Mission Log podcast. And I have to retract what I said in one of previous posts, partially. The whole episode Chase from Star Trek TNG is basically a nice recapitulation of the everyday business of science.
Yes, the central premise of the story, the algorithm is hidden in DNA that makes a neat projection is not scientifically feasible: based on today’s science. But the reaction of the characters and general events are. There is someone who is trying to solve a mystery just to learn what’s behind it: Picard. There is someone who tries to solve a mystery so that he can get a military advantage: Klingon. There is someone who angles for industrial application: Cardassian, and someone who is just sneaking around trying to steal the result of other’s effort: Romulan.
And that is so much like science in today’s society. Scientists who wish to solve a mystery for the sake of knowledge or just to solve it, constantly have to navigate people who are trying to pull the whole research process to serve their own interests. And because the research itself is often expensive, a scientist has to play along and try to figure out how to please such people and complete research.
I remember, as a student, I learned that every time you write a proposal that will be viewed by non-academic, you have to explain what are possible practical applications of your results. Even if your result will be completely unusable for centuries to come. Because you’re doing basic research and figuring out what are possible applications is equivalent to asking Newton to predict how we will use his gravitation research for a GPS system.
Due to this particular predicament, basic research is usually funded by governments. They are more willing to approve expense that will benefit society even when they are long gone, just because they know that sometimes, basic research scientist can get surprising results.
One of the examples of such surprising results is recent research where scientist discovered worms capable of eating plastic. I’ve heard about it in the another of my favorite podcasts, The Sceptics’ Guide to the Universe, episode 616. A scientist with a hobby, beekeeping, discovered that parasitic wax-worms eat plastic, and started researching it to see how this strange application can help us with pollution.
Anyway, smarter politicians know that they have to support basic research of seemingly useless stuff, because only when there is freedom to be curious about everything one can find a true breakthrough.
So, next time you’re in the voting booth, make sure to pick a person that will support basic scientific research. You know, one of the smarter politicians: they do exist.

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