Fundamental science drives technology and innovation, laying the foundations for progress and improvement. It’s hard to find a company that does not rely on the fruits of basic research in carrying out its day-to-day business. Basic research is the lifeblood of industry—without it, there would be no science to apply, and any commitment to improving the state of the world would be bound to fail.
The timescale from lab to marketplace is often long, far longer than any political cycle, and for that reason basic science is rarely a top priority for government decision makers. So, under pressure to deliver quick results, science policy frequently strives to identify those areas of applied science that can mature before the next election. Thankfully, humans are curious by nature, so basic research continues to attract some of the brightest minds, and a reasonable share of the funding. It’s just as well, since without it progress would slowly come to a halt.
To illustrate the point, consider GPS systems. To get to the origin of that technology, we have to go back to the 1660s and an orchard in Lincolnshire, where the sight of a falling apple inspired a young Isaac Newton. Years later, this led to Newton’s remarkable achievement in realizing that what makes planets orbit around stars is the same force that causes apples to fall from trees. I don’t suppose he anticipated that people would one day use that theory to navigate roads, autobahns, and interstates, and I have taken a bit of a liberty in jumping from Newton to GPS. In reality, another curious scientist, Einstein, would have to refine the notion of gravity before the theory could be used to deliver the pinpoint accuracy we now take for granted. This is just one example, but trace the family tree of just about anything in the modern world, and you’ll find a curious scientist at its origin.
In the 20th century, applied science advanced by leaps and bounds, attracting minds every bit as brilliant as those going in to basic science, and changing our lives in ways unimaginable to the previous generation. Has applied science become self-sustaining? I think not. It’s my belief that a long legacy of painstaking fundamental science beginning at the time of Newton and accelerating with Einstein’s generation laid down a rich seam of knowledge for the applied sciences to tap into. In physics, at least, we have to ensure that this seam is constantly replenished, which brings me to the crux of this essay.
Certain events mark the passage of time, dividing history into what went before and what comes after. The works of Newton and Einstein both did that, and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) marks another pivotal moment in our understanding of the universe.