Fundamental Research and the Technology in Your Life

By cjohnson | August 29, 2005 9:45 pm

On American Public Media‘s business and finance program, Marketplace earlier today, Lawrence Krauss gave a short commentary on how the results of esoteric and irrelevant-seeming research can show up in the technology we use in our everyday lives. It’s been said before, but it is so important (in this climate of deep cuts into the funding for basic research) that it should be said again, several times. Find the audio for the story here.

Some of his main points:

Cutting funding for fundamental research is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. But that’s what we’re doing. This fiscal year, the President’s budget continues to cut funding for fundamental research at places like the National Science Foundation, and NASA…

and further…

The technological side effects of asking fundamental questions about Nature aren’t the prime reasons to ask those questions in the first place, but they sure are a good reason not to stop…..

He mentions, for example, the fact that while the results of Einstein’s Special and General Relativity might seem irrelevant to our everyday lives, he would not have been able to get around LA without them, since the GPS system in his car relies on accurately synchronized clocks on the GPS satellites in orbit*. These clocks run differently than they would on the surface of the earth since they are moving rapidly, and are at different places in the earth’s gravitational field. The relativistic corrections are small, but important enough to get your GPS positioning wrong if you don’t take it into account. (See a nice page -by Richard Pogge of Ohio State University- about this issue here, and for a more technical discussion, see the Living Review by Neil Ashby.)

So who knows what else we’re working on that might well be in everybody’s back pocket one day? This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotes from the great Michael Faraday, one of the giants that helped shape our modern understanding of electricity and magnetism (see a nice BBC History website about him here). He was asked by the British Chancellor (Gladstone at the time) about what was the use of this electricity he was working on. His reply was “I do not know sir, but I wager that one day you will put a tax on it”.

I use that quote quite often, when giving public lectures on contemporary research.

So come and tell us here at Cosmicvariance about your favourite examples of everyday benefits of “blue sky” research. I can think of several straightforward ones (in medicine, communications, – this very meduim in fact!), but I bet you can think of more interesting and possibly unexpected ones than I can!


(*Ok, so LA is not as complicated to get around as all that, especially if you have a Thomas guide, but you get the idea….)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media
  • Schwaumlaut

    Quantum electrodynamics and microprocessors? High-energy colliders and PET scanners? Fishing net coatings and teflon?

  • damtp dweller

    It might also be of help to note that a more technical discussion of the relativistic corrections necessary in the Global Positioning System is available in this paper by Neil Ashby at Living Reviews.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    This is blatantly stolen from someone smarter than I: giant magnetoresistance research – went from obscure abstract sub-field to the key to high capacity cheap disk drives

  • Clifford

    damtp dweller: thanks! I added it to the main text of the post.


  • raj

    Not only PET scanners; MRI and CT scanners as well.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Cutting funding for fundamental research is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    An unfortunate metaphor. Modern Science was started by the astronomical observations of a researcher who actually had the nose cut off. 1566, 29th of December, Manderup Parsberg cuts the nose of Tycho Brahe during a duel.

  • Suresh

    Cryptography: a fairly mathematical area of theoretical computer science that allows you to buy books on

    If that is “too low an altitude”, how about number theory, which forms the basis for RSA and much of modern crypto.

  • Adam

    To what extent is QED at the root of microprocessors? Wasn’t it more a mishmash of quantum mechanics and some classical ideas (honest question, I don’t know the answer).

  • Hektor Bim

    Ink jet printers required fundamental research in fluid mechanics, for example. Laser pointers required a lot of fundamental research on lasers and chemistry.

  • Anonymous

    If it works, I think this one will beat them all – using cosmic rays to stop nuclear proliferation!!

  • Robert the Red

    My field, MRI, directly depends on a tall tower of basic advances; in physics, at least the following:

    Nuclear magnetic resonance, which depends on
    Quantum mechanics
    Electromagnetic field theory

    Approximately 100 million MRI scans are done per year in the USA, and presumably about that many in Europe, too. Presumably, these scans lead to a lot of social benefit (e.g., for surgical planning). Probably not what Heisenberg and Schrodinger planned for.

    And is there any high technology that doesn’t build upon the mathematical work of the last 3+ centuries, such as calculus, differential equations, Fourier analysis, matrix theory and linear algebra, … too many to name, many of which were inspired by applications, and many of which were just done for intellectual “fun”, which only later turned out to be useful for something.

  • iso42

    How about random matrix theory and hurricane prediction ?

  • Slawomir Piatek

    Did Einstein get government funds to develop his Theory
    of Special Relativity? Hmmmm, I read somewhere that he
    was a mere clerk in a patent office…

    One way to save money for “fundamental” research is
    to travel less to those very “important” conferences
    and summer schools and to actually work harder. Just an

    Now, let me check with my friend Joe to see if he thinks
    he is paid enough for his work… errr…. research.


  • Clifford

    Slawomir Piatek wrote:

    One way to save money for “fundamental” research is
    to travel less to those very “important” conferences
    and summer schools and to actually work harder. Just an

    Thanks for the idea. For most people in the field, those “important” conferences and summer schools are where a lot of the key hard work gets done, and where the next generation learns their craft, so your “idea” is rather flawed. Furthermore, saving a few hundred dollars on plane tickets will not make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars we’re talking about. You can’t build experiments with loose change left over from not buying plane tickets. Your “idea” needs a bit of thinking through therefore, but thanks so much for sharing it with us.



  • Adam


    This ‘mere clerk in a patent office’ stuff is a bit tiring. It wasn’t a bad job for a graduate at all, I gather. At least you didn’t trot out the old stuff about Einsten being ‘bad at school’; best save that for another discussion, I guess.

    Einstein’s Big Theory was General Relativity, and he was a fulltime academic by then, wasn’t he? Of course, theorists are rather cheaper than experimentalists, but testing GR wasn’t that cheap, I wouldn’t have thought.

  • Clifford

    Thanks for that Adam. I’d lost energy to address that point. The other use of the “mere clerk in a patent office” schlock is for arguing that there’s no need for a community of scientists, so no conferences, infrastructure of any sort, etc. The “lone wolf” model is all we need… Let’s build the future’s science base entirely using the patent office model. In fact, let’s do away with universities and research labs altogether. Let’s just have more government patent offices – everywhere.

    “Just an idea….”


  • Adam

    Of course, all Feynman’s QED work was famously done while working as a barman at a topless bar for a buck an hour plus tips. After the success of the Feynman Diagram approach, though, he was able to secure a job as a patents clerk.

    The Deputy Assistant Vice-Manager of your local Hooters is probably unifying the fields as we speak.

  • Joe Bolte

    @Adam: Good one.

    I was glad to read this, as people usually ask me what good the answer will be to whatever problem I am working on at the time. I’ll make sure to mention these examples, though I usually use the example of William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood. As far as I know, he never saved anyone’s life with this knowledge, and bloodletting continured to be used long after his death, but we would have pretty poor medicine today if we still thought that different types of blood were produced in the heart and the liver.

  • citrine

    When Edison invented the light bulb he was asked of what use it is. He supposedly responded “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

  • Adam

    Edison didn’t actually invent the lightbulb, I thought. I think that he might have re-invented it.

  • Clifford

    citrine…that was Faraday also, I believe, about something else. (I think). ….But your point is valid, nonetheless.


  • Clifford

    Adam: It was Swan…. In Newcastle, who patented a working filament bulb first, I think.


  • Clifford

    Ah, yes…Google to the rescue. Look at this and this. (maybe not the last word, but interesting.)

    It seems that, as usual, Edison won the credit because of better US-based PR… ๐Ÿ˜‰


  • spyder

    While one may not need the GPS NavStar InStar whatever system to get around LA, the availability of that technology is lifesaving particularly at sea, where incidently it was first fully implemented w/ the US Navy submarine and air craft carrier forces. Avalanche victims are found through their GPS transponders, as are flood victims who may have cell phone service(another tech gift) which can be used to locate using the GPS built within them. Lifesaving is a direct beneficiary, yet is the first that is forgotten.

    But if ever there was an area in which fundamental scientific research has benefited the well being of the population(US in this case initially) it is in the food industry. Space flight required a great deal of incidental funding to facilitate the capacity for humans to live and work in space. While the propulsion systems, and advanced avionics through computer development, were certainly important, astronauts needed food and hygiene. Today most of our kitchens and lunch rooms are crammed with technological descendents of those important research efforts. And not only the technologies but many of the food products themselves have been developed from those efforts. We have been blessed.

  • Clifford

    Hi spyder,

    Your second paragraph intrigues me. Could you give us some specific examples? Potential useful dinner-party factoids here…..


  • Athena

    I appreciate Spyder’s mention of the food industry benefiting from basic research, as I am a food scientist in the basic research department of a large food corporation. Food safety and extended shelf life, as well as portability and consistency, are among the many positive aspects that have become commonplace only too recently.

    Clifford, I can give you a “dinner factoid” to start รขโ‚ฌ” it is the one of the most well-known products and became famous by its association with astronauts, but moreover, its inventor just recently passed away. And so, in memoriam…

    Father of Tang, USU Professor Dies
    The inventor of Tang and a Utah State University emeritus professor in the Nutrition and Food Science and Technology Department died Monday at the age of 79. Dr. D.K. “Chip” Salunkhe, pioneering food scientist and founding member of USU’s Nutrition and Food Science and Technology Department, became a professor of food science at the university in 1962. However, he and other faculty members had been toiling with food science research since 1952. … Chip Salunkhe took part in developing some of the “first meals in a tube” by using food paste that was dispensed like toothpaste. Dr. Kirti Salunkhe, Salunkhe’s daughter, was one of the first to try the new food paste and said it had a unique flavor. “It was always interesting living with my father,” Kirti Salunkhe said. “You never knew what you would get.” (Herald Journal, 8/9/05)

  • Clifford

    Thanks Athena! That’s great!


  • iso42

    If we celebrate science here, we should also acknowledge a darker side …
    I just read an article which claims that a majority of science papers is wrong
    (you can get links to this study by clicking on my nickname, warning: evil self-promotion).
    Such a finding is obviously not helpful when discussing the value of (fundamental) science [or when discussing with quantoken ๐Ÿ˜Ž ]

    By the way what is a reasonable estimate for wrong papers in physics, e.g. as stored on arXiv ?

  • Clifford

    iso42….Intersting, but I don’t understand this point. Wrong papers do not, by and large, taint science’s positive contributions…. wrong papers largely report irreproducable work, and then those papers disappear after a while. That is another thing that distiguishes science from art or religion. Stuff that does not work does not get anywhere. It’s not like bad papers are used to produce bad technology that does bad things, while the results of good papers get incorporated into GPS systems and the like…

    Of course, there are well known examples of flawed “science” (which might have been written up into papers) being used to justify evil political aims, but that is a different matter, no?


  • Quantoken


    99% of published papers are either wrong one way or another, or outright worthless, that in itself is not surprising and not that big a deal, because we know 99% of people in the research community really do not have the wisdom of a science researcher, and they are just in this massive modern industry to make a living.

    But the troubling fact is knowing full well 99% of papers could be wrong, yet few people ever demonstrated a healthy skepticism. They have totally lost their own ability of independent thinking, and their selection criteria boils down to a simple rule that if it is accepted by main stream, then it must be correct, and vise versa.

    Take this as an example. The one single strongest evidence that the universe is “accelerating”, is composed of data compiled from no more than a few dozen photons, collected from 10 billion light years way, and those few dozen photons are even mixed in a whole bag of a couple thousand other photons, from the sam remote galaxy and indistinguisable. And it is one sole data set, not reproduced by any one else, and there is no other similar observations of similar events to back it up.

    And yet no one ever questioned the validity of such un-repeated observational data. The original author claimed it was none-repeatable because it was rare to observe a supernova that far away. That’s nonsense. If you are talking about observing 10 billion light years away, the universe is so huge, containing trillions of galaxies, each galaxy containging trillions of stars, if you calculate the odd you look at any part of the sky, and some where 10 billion light years away there happen to be one or two supernovaes just happen to be exploded right at the moment. Such odd is virtually 100%.

    And there is no indication any one still has any decent wisdom at all. I provided this link which paints a groomy picture of an imminent oil crisis which could be a complete catastropy to human civilization. I thought if one has a function brain, he/she could either agree or disagree with the opinion. Either way it’s OK. We can at least discuss why we agree or why we disagree, and find out which opinion is right and which is wrong. But no one said anything. It’s like your brains simply become numb and stop functioning altogether. Why? Where is independent thinking?


  • iso42


    of course you are right that in the long run the bad papers are forgotten (since nobody can reproduce the results) and the good ones survive. This is the beauty of science.

    But your topic was political and fiscal support for (fundamental) science and thus short term decisions. e.g. When it comes to global warming, many findings are labeld “junk science” and
    it is easy for politicians to dismiss scientists using the argument that we do not know for sure
    if the majority view is correct. The finding (if it is correct!) that a majority of scientific papers is
    flawed will not help in this situation.

  • Adam

    Well, Quantoken, either no one wants to discuss the important issues of which you speak, or else maybe no one wants to discuss them with you.

  • Plato

    In light of athena’s post.

    Historically, how about the simple valuation of potatoes chips that are now used with refridgeration technology.:) I am thinking of McCains rise. While the etiquette of the dinner table might be fast foodand junk food junkies, still they converse heartfelt about the technological wonders.

    Physiological extensions of robot arms? Silicon valley, and the transitor?

    I remember how proud my brother was when he held his ipod boom box on his shoulder:) Or how 1 and zero’s were punch cards, and vast rooms of reel tape.:)

  • Athena

    Clifford, another conversational tidbit! Here’s the latest cross-fertilization of scientific disciplines reported in the news related to food science. Since you had mentioned ice cream processed using liquid nitrogen earlier, I thought you might find this intriguing, though I can’t vouch for tastier.

    The “ice cream” (in quotes because this product does not meet the standard of identity for ice cream) was chilled faster, capitalizing on fundamental scientific knowledge. As quoted in the article…

    She [the MIT graduate student] was seeking a project involving thermodynamics, the science of converting heat into other forms of energy, which is exactly what happens when liquid ice cream mix solidifies.

    The associate professor and his graduate student developed the method in MIT’s Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory, which is usually to generate ultra-low temps in investigating superconductivity. What is of interest to ice cream maunufacturers, besides a novel tactile experience, is the saving of energy, thus reducing costs in ice cream production. Here’s the link to the article:

    Now, where is that darned hand crank ice cream freezer?

  • Clifford

    I love those hand crank ice cream makers! Thanks!


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