Why Do Science? That's Entertainment!
EDITOR'S NOTE: This opinion piece is reprinted here with permission from New Scientist magazine, where it appeared in the November 3, 2001 issue. The author is a member of the AIR editorial board. He is also an Ig Nobel Prize winner (Biology Prize, 2000) for his first-hand report, "On the Comparative Palatability of Some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica," American Midland Naturalist, vol. 86, no. 1, July 1971, pp. 101-9.]
What's the point of science? To a large degree it's fun, argues Richard
Science is a sober business. It's about curing cancer and heart disease.
It's about eradicating poverty and feeding the world. It's about making
us live longer.
This, at least, is how most scientists justify science. By default, science
that doesn't benefit people either physically or economically is seen as
less serious and therefore less substantial-and less worthy of funding.
Many of us who participate in this "other" science, the benefits
of which are neither immediate nor obvious, justify our work by calling
it "pure" or "basic". We argue to potential backers
that our seemingly arcane activities will somehow reap tangible physical
or fiscal benefits.
The truth is that many of us-from astronomers to zoologists-know that the work we devote our lives to may never yield any practical dividends.
Secretly we feel like charlatans when we petition public and private agencies to support our endeavours by holding out hopes of hitting pay dirt.
Although we rarely say it out loud, the real reason we do the research
comes down to one thing: it's fun.
Take my research. For more than a quarter of a century, I have studied
the morphology and behaviour of tadpoles. A bit esoteric, you say? On the
contrary: I was first drawn to these beasts because they looked so funny.
And they have kept me entertained for years.
For my PhD thesis, I indulged myself in a profoundly impractical study of the insides of tadpole mouths. In contrast to their smooth and simple exterior, their insides are phantasmagoric landscapes of hills, valleys, folds and flaps. To me they were, and still are, works of art. Each session at my microscope is the opening of a new art gallery.
I'll go even further. The entertainment value afforded by my kind of science
can, in certain circumstances, be a credible rationale for the activity.
It's important precisely because it's such a delight. Before I justify that
further, consider how much science shares with popular entertainment.
There are many parallels. Both involve great anticipation-those magic moments
we all yearn for. In a hockey game, it comes in the last period when the
game is tied and the home team has the puck. In opera, it may be the soprano's
aria in the third act. In science, it could be the elation you feel when
a reporter gene corroborates your introduced DNA sequence in a transgenic
organism. Or the moment a stain reveals separate bands on an electrophoretic
gel. Or that point when an action potential confirms a drug's effect in
an electrophysiological preparation. Just as when the home team scores or
the fat lady sings, at moments like these we feel like cheering.
Scientists like myself who are primarily teachers have to treat our research
like going to the theatre or a hockey match-that is, relegate it to our
"free" time. Nevertheless it is our own time, and we can package
it as we like. For a lot of us, research could be called a hobby, with all
the positive and negative connotations that that implies.
This brings us back to the irksome question of justification. If much of
science is a diversion, a fascinating sideline we do for pleasure, how is
it worthy of public funding? Just because we get our kicks out of watching
labelled cells fluoresce, or peaks appear in spectrographic analyses, that
scarcely obliges others to pay our "admission fee".
And yet it can. Entertainment is, as we've seen, vital in itself as a break
from dull duty. If "impractical" science can entertain researchers,
then it can also entertain others. It can even be honourably marketed for
its entertainment value. Indeed it often is, with the result that fascinating
science now fills magazines and television documentaries across the world.
Yet scientists are still nervous about exploiting this side to their discipline.
Take this charming irony. NASA and its partners justify sending astronauts
into orbit by claiming that research on humans in weightlessness could lead
to cures for osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases. So far, though,
no medical breakthroughs have come from crewed space flights. Meanwhile,
one of the few commercially successful products from the space shuttle programme
has been a series of IMAX movies about the Earth and the sky-and the shuttle
It doesn't stop at the cinema. Luckily for scientists, we live in a golden
age of information, even when this is of little practical value. And science
is the great progenitor of new information in the modern world. So it makes
sense that science is a growing part of the huge entertainment market. Not
counting consumer electronics, the entertainment industry worldwide generates
a whopping $480 billion a year.
There are numerous opportunities for pure scientists to be part of and profit from the entertainment world, though few know how to enter the field.
Generally, a scientist who can enthral undergraduates in the classroom
can equally well wow a broader audience. A bigger problem is that many scientists
view popularised science with disdain. They argue that they will lose credibility
with fellow scientists if they spend time on radio or TV or in print.
This is hogwash. It's little more than pseudo-elitist hypocrisy when a
scientist considers it appropriate to beg for research grants from taxpayers,
but inappropriate to tell the same public, in an entertaining fashion and
in words they'll understand, what is so exciting about their scientific
The popular science writer Paul Hoffman in his book The Man Who Loved Only Numbers quotes Albert Einstein thus: "One of the strongest motives that lead men [and women] to . . . science is to escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness." If escapist science is good enough for Einstein, it's good enough for me. Let the show begin.
Richard Wassersug is scientist in residence at the Discovery Channel in Agincourt, Ontario, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org From New Scientist magazine, vol 172 issue 2315, 03/11/2001, page 52
© Copyright 2001 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)
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