Curiosity and Innovation
The crucial relationship between science and usefulness to society, as demonstrated by physics
If we assume that one of the conditions for innovation is that it produces something useful to society, what purpose does pure science therefore have, considering it is so inaccessible that it generally is thought to have no application to everyday life?
A clear and concise answer to this question was provided by a particle physicist engaged in science on a daily basis in Kamioka in Gifu Prefecture.
Take a look at his explanation and also see examples of how science is a source of innovation in other areas.
With a drum-shaped water tank 39.3 m in diameter and 41.4 m in height and composed of 12,000 photo-multiplier tubes, the SK is the world’s largest and highest precision particle observatory. This facility is in the process of investigating everything about neutrinos and finding the key to solving the mysteries of the universe.
The Kamioka Observatory of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research is an experimental facility of the University of Tokyo located 1,000 meters beneath the peak of Mt. Ikenoyama, which stands at an altitude of 1,350 meters on the border between Toyama and Gifu prefectures. The observatory is home to various facilities, including the Super-Kamiokande (SK) detector, which consists of a tank filled with 50,000 tons of water and aims to reveal the properties of neutrinos traveling through space, as well as the liquid xenon detector (XMASS) that aims to directly detect dark matter in space and uncover its true nature. The facility is visited by several thousand people every year, perhaps due to its unique and somewhat mysterious underground location, and has attracted a great deal of attention.
Many of the visitors are immensely curious to find out about the research that takes place underground and what can actually be seen and understood about the universe from the depths of a mountain cavern. However, from time to time there have been people who ask, “What on earth are the uses for this type of research?” This is a question that is increasingly being asked and what is particularly surprising is that it is one that has come to be posed by children of junior high or high school age. Children never used to ask such questions.
Recently we are often told that we should ensure that the accumulated research outcomes of universities should be fed back into the community, as well as being asked what kinds of innovation our research helps to create, given the importance of innovation. It would seem that everyone these days has started a quest to seek for “things that are useful.”
Particle research, which seeks to discover the basic principles of matter, and research into the stars, galaxies and universe, are representative of research fields that are considered to be of “no use” to society. For this reason, there are people who may think that engaging in such research is a waste of resources. The research that we conduct is what is termed “fundamental science” or “basic research.” The original meaning of the word “science” comes from Latin word “Scientia,” which means “knowledge” or “to know.” Our work is to find answers to such questions as “Why do the stars shine?” “How did the universe begin?” and “What is the composition of matter?” The desire to know leads to new discoveries, which in turn become new knowledge that is accumulated in society and passed on as a form of systematic learning, basis for culture and a common asset for humanity. It is science that gives both children and adults alike the hope to dream.
This kind of science is what could be termed “Curiosity-driven Science.” It could be said that at a very basic level the possession of a sense of curiosity is what makes people human. Only humans experience the joy that a new discovery brings. Are we not in danger of losing the true meaning of “science” in the course of our busy and competitive lives? Is it not true that the things which at first glance may appear to be of no practical use to us are in fact essential to modern daily life?
Using approximately 1 ton of liquid xenon cooled to minus 100°C, the Xenon MASSive Detector (XMASS) is a device designed to directly detect dark matter, which is thought to be one of the building blocks of the universe. There are plans to expand the device to a 20-ton class multi-purpose detector in the future.
A theory of “no practical use” is essential for GPS to function
It may come as something of a surprise to learn that science which could be thought of as pointless is in fact an essential source of innovation. Take, for example, the GPS systems that have become an indispensable feature in our own cars. For GPS to function properly, it requires the use of satellite orbit correction technology that is based on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which was proposed 99 years ago in 1915. The theory of general relativity is a theory of gravity, time and space and it has no practical applications in our daily lives. The currently popular fields of quantum computers and quantum teleportation are actually dependent on theories of quantum mechanics that were perfected 90 years ago in the 1920s. Quantum mechanics was devised as a means of explaining the behavior of atoms and atomic nuclei; this research also had no discernible use in society at the time it was formulated. However, the discovery of nuclear fission was put to use not long after in a calamitous form of innovation. When Heinrich Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves in 1886, it is said that when asked what these waves could be used for, he responded that he didn’t know, and that his experiment was conducted only to prove Professor (James Clerk) Maxwell’s theory.
It can take decades before the accomplishments of science lead through to actual innovation. In many cases, these kinds of research outcomes that create the basis for new theories of physics lead to innovations that have a tremendous impact on society as a whole. They could be referred to as the ultimate type of innovation. On the other hand, however, a great deal of science may not lead directly to innovation. A scientific discovery may only create innovation in 1,000 years’ time. The neutrinos and dark matter that we are researching at the Kamioka Observatory are also subjects that will have no immediate usefulness for society.
However, while it may be acceptable to talk about such “useless” science in this way when money is not involved, once significant funds start to be used, it becomes difficult to justify financially backing it by talk of “dreams” and “ultimate innovation” alone. The construction costs for the Super-Kamiokande detector that we use in our research amount to 20 yen per capita per year for five years and account for approximately 0.003% of the national budget. It is for the nation to decide whether this is expensive or cheap as an investment in the nation’s dreams. However, in the grander scheme of things, surely using funds for something that may at first glance seem wasteful and not requiring the provision of any direct, short-term return is not actually wasteful at all? Rather, is it not the case that a society which entertains such “waste” is actually one that is well-balanced, robust and at ease with itself, and not focused solely on the busy routine of daily life?
The KAmioka GRAvitational Wave Detector (KAGRA) is a large-scale cryogenic gravitational wave telescope currently being constructed in the ground under the Kamioka Mine. The ability to directly measure gravitational waves is expected to help in solving the mysteries of black holes. It is planned that the first measurements will be possible by the end of 2015 and full-fledged operation is scheduled to begin around mid-2017.
Science in the pursuit of truth creates the sustenance for tomorrow
There does not appear to be a vision, or, to put it in a more old-fashioned way, a philosophy in contemporary Japanese society about what to do with science that appears to have no practical use. The value of science is not decided by the innovation it creates or whether it can be immediately put to use in the service of society. Science in the pursuit of truth is accumulated in society as knowledge for humankind as a whole, and creates the inspirational sustenance for tomorrow. It is essential for us to consider a long-term perspective for science, and perceive it truly as a “100-year Plan for the Nation.”
It goes without saying that it is important for universities to reflect on their past reluctance to share their research openly and to ensure that accumulated knowledge is made available and used to create innovation for society. However, conversely, given the realities of the modern world, is it not now more necessary than ever for us also to treasure pure research and to remain focused on our goals without being swayed by ephemeral trends?
Professor, Director of Kamioka Observatory, Institute for Cosmic Ray Research
Deputy Director, The Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe