From Einstein to GPS to the Back Seat

From Einstein to GPS to the Back Seat

The Hubble Space Telescope Credit: NASA and ESA

 

The proposed Federal budget suggests that the United States may turn its back on the basic science approach to developing technological and economic advances that has served us so well for so long. For the first time in fifty years, we would not pursue the top-ranked project of the National Academy of Sciences, ceding the leading roles in science that the U.S. has discovered.

Throughout the 20th century, the United States led the scientific community, inventing more than its share of the science and technology on which the world depends. Basic science-driven research reveals the laws of Nature while enabling amazing technologies that allow us to do seemingly magical things: see inside the human body, navigate in a pea-soup fog, and solve problems long considered unsolvable. When applied research hits a wall, basic, curiosity-driven science provides a new insight that leapfrogs the barrier.

Along the way we discovered the composition of our Universe (were we surprised!), and we have come much closer to learning who or what we share it with. Time and time again, the quest to simply understand our world, our universe, ourselves through basic research has been our best North star.

Perhaps the most dramatic example comes from Albert Einstein’s efforts to understand gravity. Combining an obscure branch of mathematics called Riemannian Geometry with incredible intuition and some clues from observations of planets and stars, Einstein taught us that gravity is the warping of space and time by mass and energy (as explained in his General Theory of Relativity). Yet not even Einstein could have predicted how his theory would be needed to calculate one’s precise location on Earth using the delays in signals (after accounting for Einstein’s warps) from the network of GPS satellites. Without it, airplanes using GPS would land off the runway!

But how do we choose what to invest in for a portfolio of basic science research, if it doesn’t work to consider immediate practical needs?  Over the past half century the U.S. astrophysics community developed a highly successful approach: We join together to prepare a ten-year plan, the National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics, identifying the most promising basic science opportunities available. This worked extraordinarily well, leading to ground-breaking, Nobel-prize winning scientific discoveries made possible by the Hubble Space Telescope. The success of this approach led to its adoption by other disciplines as well. Consensus-based, science-driven prioritization of resources has been key to driving scientific advances.

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