Wealth of Science

By Phil Plait | July 19, 2006 8:09 pm

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.


Comments (28)

  1. Elyk

    Nice to be reminded that wealth is completely seperate from money. It’s whatever makes you happy or makes your life more enjoyable. I think everyone should note how wealthy science has made us, and where we would be without it. Maybe people would spend their money on something more worth while.

  2. Sriram

    If only all ppl realised tat science is important and helped in funding science programs instead of wasting money….

  3. monolithfoo

    Carefull, or the Ann Rand libertarians will suck you right in.

  4. diederick

    Hmmm, how delightfully american of you to actually remind people that money is something else than wealth. Or is that too easy? Sorry then.

    Meanwhile, what do you mean, science started 2000 years ago?

  5. The part that made me sit up in your exceprt was “till recently at least”.

    What with Universities wanting to make money from patents and so forth, plus the ever-growing angst about hyperprotective copyright, the notion of donating your wealth is being buried under the notion that “intellectual propert yis property”.


  6. Klaus

    Very interesting thought – wealth vs money. Thanks!

    However, your point of doubling your lifespan is not quite correct. Sure, we live healthier and longer than 100 years ago, but the very low life-expectancy statistic came largely from the very high number of infant mortalities.
    These have dropped very deep, thankfully :)


  7. Chaos

    @diederick: Sure, science started even a little more than 2,000 years ago – some ancient Greeks got the idea that maybe “the gods did it” was not the final answer to every question. Check out Plato or Aristotle on wikipedia if you like. Or Archimedes for more applied science. They didn´t get very far, from our point of view, but that´s mainly because they didn´t all those bright people living before them that *we* have.

    @Klaus: It´s not just that – we´ve made so many advances in medicine, especially against epidemics, mainly with hygiene and vaccination.

  8. KB

    Economists describe money as the ‘lubrication’ of the economy. It’s not absolutely essential, but it makes things work a lot better. The goal of economy is wealth or ‘value’ generation.

    I was discussing something related to your post with a scientist recently. Why are scientists and engineers so low-paid in comparison to the other professions. We don’t spend any less time in school than, say, lawyers, doctors, and financial analysts, and I don’t think people value our work any less. So why the big pay disparity?

  9. PK

    Astronomy started (of necessity) around the same time people invented agriculture, which I guess is about 10 000 years ago. Sure it was primitive and entangled with astrology, but it had a definite scientific component.

  10. PK

    KB, it’s because we collectively let “them” get away with paying us badly. We put up with this because we love what we do. I for one still think I have the best possible job, and I am a postdoc without tenure track (yet…).

  11. Interesting point. The flipside of this coin though is; as Rob Knop said, the concept of “Intellectual property”. In an ideal world all knowledge would be free and accessable to all. (I’m talking mainly about scientific knowledge here, not state secrets!) We’re getting there, but there will still be some who want us to pay for their research, as in the recent private vs public controversy over the Human Genome project. I can see their point – if you’re going to spend millions unravelling the human genome, it makes sense to want to claw some of that money back by selling the information. But copyrighting it? That’s a whole different ball game.

    Whatever happened to that debate anyway? I haven’t heard much about it recently.

  12. eddy

    There is another distinction that I try to live by: money versus value. When making a choice, I try to look at what seems to be the best exchange and just comparing money to money gives the wrong idea. I always say: “I am not interested in money”, but add “I am interested in value”. Sometimes information is value, like in an education.

    It is here where I have to take a different point of view. One book that changed my way of seeing things was called “intellectual capital”, by Thomas A. Steward.
    No idea if this is the same book that I have or a later edition. I have a translation and I have it for some years now.

    I do agree that what scientist provide is like a resource from which whealth can be created, but knowing where to get this resource and manage it is just as valuable as the resource itself, if not more.

    The answer to KB’s question is: it is like stealing candy from a baby.

    Go back a hundred years and tell just someone random: there is a black hole in the center of galaxy M78. He’d probably give a response in physical terms. That might indeed do him good and contribute to his whealth.

  13. Kaptain K

    “So why the big pay disparity?”

    The “gold Rule”


  14. Gary Ansorge

    Wealth: Assets from which one can draw resources upon which to live.
    Money: A means of keeping score.

    Real wealth, as opposed to piles of paper and metal, comes from the application of knowledge using energy and will.

    The scientific method allows us to accumulate knowledge faster and with less energy input than old timey theories that were only testable by application, instead of by prediction. Very inefficient,,,

    I would think ANY Republican/Libertarian/Democrat would be most interested in accumulating a wealth of knowledge in the most efficient ( low energy/will input)
    manner possible. ID produces no new wealth. Ergo it’s a waste of energy and will,,,

    Gary 7

  15. Very excellent post BlogMaster.

    This subject reminded me of Ray Tomlinson who came up with the @ symbol for connecting two individuals over a computer network. He did not get paid a dime for this breakthrough invention of email. Nevertheless, a wealth of shared information has been speeded up between human to human messaging.

  16. Eh…

    Anybody with kids knows that true wealth has nothing to do with money.

  17. Max Fagin

    Indeed Phil, I’ve never thoguht about it that way.

    Then let me thank you for giving your time to increacing the “wealth” of everyone who has even visited Bad Astronomy. I think I speak for every poster here, Thank You Phil.

  18. Sean M.

    An interesting essay and response, Phil.

    I was amused by Graham’s calculation ‘showing’ that someone in his twenties making an excellent wage could become 36 times more productive by workig harder with less bureaucracy, though! It reminds me of a libertarian ‘argument’ that we would be eight times as wealthy if we didn’t pay taxes. At least he didn’t try to defend it. Graham also seems to neglect the obvious fact that many people get rewards greater than their productivity warrants, and that most industries do not permit such wide variation in productivity as creative work (eg. writing, programming) does. But again, an interesting essay despite its flaws.

  19. Henrik, Sweden

    Well put. Wealth is not something to be measured in terms of money.

  20. While I freely admit to being totally obsessed with Cassini (just look at my blog, say, here, for example (http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com/2006/07/unearthly-beauty-saturns-rings-and.html) I firmly believe my life is better for being able to see these things with my own eyes – albeit in pictures.

    And thank you, Phil, and the rest of you scientists.

  21. Too bad that many people thinks that “Ignorance is Bliss”.

  22. If wealth is not just money, then to understand how scientists are compensated you must look at more than just how much money they make.

    They “earn” prestige, acclaim, respect, for making great discoveries. Also they get to spend their life searching for those discoveries (to be able to do the thing you really want to do all the time is about as wealthy as you can get).

    So the statement “Scientists, till recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created” doesn’t really hold up.

    They got a lot of wealth in return for the wealth they created – enough to persuade them to continue, anyway. It just wasn’t all payment in the form of money.

    There seems to be a general temptation to analyse the world exclusively in terms of a zero-sum conflict between the haves and the have-nots, in which the only kind of economic relationship is one-way exploitation. We have Marx and others to thank for this popular but misguided misconception.

    PK said: “KB, it’s because we collectively let “them” get away with paying us badly. We put up with this because we love what we do. I for one still think I have the best possible job…”

    Saying “let them get away…” implies that a theft is being committed.

    But isn’t the truth that you are smart enough to be more interested in having a wealth of time to spend doing what you love, instead of a pile of money? I don’t think anyone’s screwing you over! You sound extremely successful measured against what is important to you.

  23. So the statement “Scientists, till recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created” doesn’t really hold up.

    They got paid for the creation of the wealth. But they did still donate it.

    However, they didn’t hold on to the wealth and attempt to keep milking it. One could draw a comparison to copyrights. A moderate copyright term allows an artist to be compensated for creating cultural wealth. An extreme or perpetual copyright term allows the artist and his descendants to continue to monopolize and earn money from that wealth.

    Science, effective, has a zero copyright term. Yeah, some sicentists end up patenting what they’re doing, but even patents don’t last as long as copyrights do. Copyrights last too long right now, and it seems that it’s only getting worse.

  24. Timmy K.

    “We don’t spend any less time in school than, say, lawyers, doctors, and financial analysts, and I don’t think people value our work any less. So why the big pay disparity?”

    Lawyers keep those with the money out of jail.

    Doctors keep those with the money alive.

    Financial analysts help those with the money shift more money away from those with less money, and into their larger gold coin filled vaults (or secret Caymen Island holding company accounts).

    Scientist just do everything else… The only problem is that you rarely come face to face with the scientist and realize how valuable they are (not to imply that “financial analysts” are valuable to our actual society at all).

  25. “We don’t spend any less time in school than, say, lawyers, doctors, and financial analysts, and I don’t think people value our work any less. So why the big pay disparity?”

    What scientists do is of less immediate use to society than what all of those other professionals do.

    I’m an astronomer. My use to society is in helping to express and pursue the human race’s collective driving curiosity about the Universe around us. I also support the ongoing enterprise of exploration, which as a side effect will hopefully help inspire kids to go into technical fields, some of which will be directly useful.

    It’s no surprise to me that people who’ve spent as much (or even less) time in school than I did make a lot more money than I do. The truth is, compared to a lot of society, I’m pretty well paid. I’m getting to do what I like, and I can live comfortably. I can’t really complain about it, even though a simple “cost/benefit” analysis comparing my pay to the number of years I spent in school might suggest I mis-spent my school years. Simple money analyses like that don’t motivate most scientists working in the area of basic research.

  26. Paul Graham is an interesting character. Even when he’s wrong (which he often is, IMHO), he’s wrong in interesting ways.


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