This month the U.S. Postal Service debuts a new commemorative stamp set to celebrate four American scientists. Today the final stamp in that series: physicist Richard Feynman.
Most Americans remember Richard Feynman either from his star turn on the panel investigating the 1986 Space Shuttle accident, or, from his surprise best seller Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman.
Now from that book you'd think he was a curious character. That he only taught himself how to fix radios, pick locks, draw nudes, speak Portuguese, play the bongos and decipher Mayan hieroglyphics. All true, but they understate his achievement.
In 1965 Feynman shared a Nobel Prize for his work work on something called Quantum Electrodynamics, more often known by its initials Q.E.D. It revealed the inner workings of electrons.
Why should we care about this? Feynman himself once said he didn't think it would ever amount to anything useful. His life and work ask the interesting question: Why should we care about basic research into how the universe works? And why, as a society, should we fund it?
Often we'll hear that basic research leds to technological innovation - to products on our desktops and in our homes. This is only a partial justification because sometimes it does lead to this, but sometimes it doesn't. The dance of science and technology is never one-way: The lead switches often.
a second answer: Pure science is a great aesthetic and spiritual adventure for humankind, worth doing for its own sake like any art form. So, like symphony orchestras, we should fund this great romantic adventure - what more should a civilized society do than broaden the realm of human knowledge? In a society where we currently have great divides on cultural issues, its a bit hard to justify science as a cultural imperative.
To me the best answer lies in this: Basic research brings sharp minds to universities - minds which can train the next generation of engineers and applied scientists, and minds which have the time to think of something revolutionary.
So, basic research itself may not be productive in the utilitarian sense, but has value because it concentrates the best minds to create a rich, intellectual environment where bold ideas hold sway - and where the payoff for society may be very big.
Richard Feynman's career demonstrates this well. While teaching at CalTech he received acclaim for his work in physics, which revealed a fundamental understanding of the universe. That's all well and good, but he might well have thought up something that will impact lives every day. In 1959 he gave a talk entitled "There's a lot of room at the bottom" - in it he laid out a vision of the nanotechnology revolution that's occurring today. That speech has inspired a generation of researchers who may truly change our world.
Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises