While driven by the desire to pursue curiosity, fundamental investigations are the crucial first step to innovation.
When scientists announced their discovery of gravitational waves in 2016, it made headlines all over the world. The existence of these invisible ripples in space-time had finally been confirmed.
It was a momentous feat in basic research, the curiosity-driven search for fundamental knowledge about the universe and the elements within it. Basic (or “blue-sky”) research is distinct from applied research, which is targeted toward developing or advancing technologies to solve a specific problem or to create a new product.
But the two are deeply connected.
“Applied research is exploring the continents you know, whereas basic research is setting off in a ship and seeing where you get,” says Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist at MIT. “You might just have to return, or sink at sea, or you might discover a whole new continent. So it’s much more long-term, it’s riskier and it doesn’t always pay dividends.”
When it does, he says, it opens up entirely new possibilities available only to those who set sail into uncharted waters.
Most of physics—especially particle physics—falls under the umbrella of basic research. In particle physics “we’re asking some of the deepest questions that are accessible by observations about the nature of matter and energy—and ultimately about space and time also, because all of these things are tied together,” says Jim Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland.
LHC at CERN. Basic research in Particle Physics
Physicists seek answers to questions about the early universe, the nature of dark energy, and theoretical phenomena, such as supersymmetry, string theory and extra dimensions.
Perhaps one of the most well-known basic researchers was the physicist who predicted the existence of gravitational waves: Albert Einstein.
Einstein devoted his life to elucidating elementary concepts such as the nature of gravity and the relationship between space and time. According to Wilczek, “it was clear that what drove what he did was not the desire to produce a product, or anything so worldly, but to resolve puzzles and perceived imperfections in our understanding.”
In addition to advancing our understanding of the world, Einstein’s work led to important technological developments. The Global Positioning System, for instance, would not have been possible without the theories of special and general relativity. A GPS receiver, like the one in your smart phone, determines its location based on timed signals it receives from the nearest four of a collection of GPS satellites orbiting Earth. Because the satellites are moving so quickly while also orbiting at a great distance from the gravitational pull of Earth, they experience time differently from the receiver on Earth’s surface. Thanks to Einstein’s theories, engineers can calculate and correct for this difference.
There’s a long history of serendipitous output from basic research. For example, in 1989 at CERN European research center, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was looking for a way to facilitate information-sharing between researchers. He invented the World Wide Web.
While investigating the properties of nuclei within a magnetic field at Columbia University in the 1930s, physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi discovered the basic principles of nuclear magnetic resonance. These principles eventually formed the basis of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, MRI.
It would be another 50 years before MRI machines were widely used—again with the help of basic research. MRI machines require big, superconducting magnets to function. Luckily, around the same time that Rabi’s discovery was being investigated for medical imaging, scientists and engineers at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory began building the Tevatron particle accelerator to enable research into the fundamental nature of particles, a task that called for huge amounts of superconducting wire.
“We were the first large, demanding customer for superconducting cable,” says Chris Quigg, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab. “We were spending a lot of money to get the performance that we needed.” The Tevatron created a commercial market for superconducting wire, making it practical for companies to build MRI machines on a large scale for places like hospitals.
Doctors now use MRI to produce detailed images of the insides of the human body, helpful tools in diagnosing and treating a variety of medical complications, including cancer, heart problems, and diseases in organs such as the liver, pancreas and bowels.
Another tool of particle physics, the particle detector, has also been adopted for uses in various industries. In the 1980s, for example, particle physicists developed technology precise enough to detect a single photon. Today doctors use this same technology to detect tumors, heart disease and central nervous system disorders. They do this by conducting positron emission tomography scans, or PET scans. Before undergoing a PET scan, the patient is given a dye containing radioactive tracers, either through an injection or by ingesting or inhaling. The tracers emit antimatter particles, which interact with matter particles and release photons, which are picked up by the PET scanner to create a picture detailed enough to reveal problems at the cellular level.
As Gates says, “a lot of the devices and concepts that you see in science fiction stories will never come into existence unless we pursue the concept of basic research. You’re not going to be able to construct starships unless you do the research now in order to build these in the future.”
It’s unclear what applications could come of humanity’s new knowledge of the existence of gravitational waves.
It could be enough that we have learned something new about how our universe works. But if history gives us any indication, continued exploration will also provide additional benefits along the way.
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