I was reading an essay recently, and the author distinguishes between money and wealth. I suppose I never thought about it, but he’s right, of course. Wealth is when you have something you need or want. Someone who is not wealthy does not have what they need or want. Money is a medium, a way of transferring wealth. It’s not even the only way, but it’s the one people think of.
Then the author said something that literally startled me:
Scientists, till recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created.
He’s absolutely right. Again, wealth is not the same as money. Scientists take a relatively small amount of money (compared to, say, the cost of an attack helicopter or the building of a bridge) and turn it into wealth. Knowledge. Understanding. A brief moment of awe in the public when they grasp a little bit more of the Universe.
That is wealth, mental wealth. We humans are curious, and science both sates and drives that curiosity.
But all of that translates into real, tangible wealth. Knowledge and understanding can lead to technology. To build a computer means knowledge of how to make a silicon chip, of how silicon behaves, of what silicon is. That was science every step of the way, starting two thousand years ago. And building a computer, if you’re Dell, say, leads to wealth.
All of modern medicine is wealth. Despite the cries of supporters of non-traditional medicine, modern (or western if you prefer) medicine has made us wealthy in the U.S. Our lifespans have more than doubled in the past century. I am right now at the age where the male life expectancy was about 100 years ago. Yet I am here, because medicine can stop some diseases, and give me advice on how to live healthier (not to mention a million other things modern U.S. society does to keep its citizenry alive). If you like what I write, then you are wealthier than you would have been if I weren’t alive. And if you’re older than 45 or so, bonus!
A lot of this, maybe even the majority of the ground work, was done by scientists who were not trying to get rich. They wanted to understand things. They probably had that itch to explore, to see what is under that next rock, behind that fallen log. If things worked out one way, they worked in private, lived off of a day job, and maybe never got recognition for their personal conversion of money into wealth for the rest of humanity.
If things went a different way, they got a huge government subsidy, or a wise investor who saw the potential of wealth-making, or they were canny enough to market whatever it was they found. Even if they got rich, then they still produced a net wealth to the world.
But either way, that’s what scientists do. Maybe they make your life physically wealthier by extending your lifespan, and making you healthier while it happens. Or maybe it’s intangible, like knowing that a black hole with a billion times the Sun’s mass lies in the center of the elliptical galaxy M87.
But either way, life is more interesting, life is better.
That’s what scientists do.