In science, there has always been a gap between curiosity-driven exploratory scientific research and applied targeted research (seen as having more “real-world potential”). But, in my opinion, it is important to note that curiosity-driven science and exploration has always been the engine for all progress in science and technology. All knowledge is useful and indeed all knowledge should be pursued without any regard at all as to what it may lead to, particularly as any discernible practical benefit that may arise in due course might not be shortsightedly evident.
The propensity to know things and explore for the sake of knowing is the driver of intellectual creativity and innovation. Setting targets and priorities, on the other hand, only diverts attention to problems that are discernible and available at hand while ignoring the other unknown problems that might also exist. The fact that there is no endpoint in curiosity-driven science goes to show the endless sort of possibilities that might ensue from undertaking it. Conversely, research that is undertaken on the basis of intent or purpose rejects negative outcomes that can still be useful in other aspects and give rise to unforseeable benefit.
It is first important to add to the overall pool of knowledge through curiosity driven science and the information gleaned from this as a result can then be applied to the practical world of problem solving. In fact, many outstanding successful discoveries and inventions which we take for granted today are built on a solid foundation of curiosity driven paths that had no discernible practical or commercial purposes to begin with.
Perhaps, one of the most striking examples of this form of scientific inquiry can be described by the work of 19th Century Irish physicist John Tyndall. Although very much forgotten today, Tyndall was indeed one of the greatest scientists of his day. He was fascinated by a wide variety of questions and showed an interest in many subjects, including chemistry, geology, physics, and geology. An avid mountaineer and Alpinist, he would often combine his work with his hobbies. One of the things which always fascinated Tyndall was the colour of the sky. He was curious to know “Why the sky is blue?”. In the course of his studies on light beams, Tyndall set out to explain why.
In 1869, Tyndall conducted experiments using a glass tube that was about 90 cm long and 8 cm wide. When the tube was illuminated with a strong condensed beam from an optical lamp, he found that the tube filled with many fine particles. Tyndall then focused the beam onto the tube in a dark room and found that the tube now filled with sky-blue cloud. As a control, Tyndall performed another experiment in which he used dust-free air and quite wonderfully found out that in darkness, the tube remained a pitch black when shone upon by the strong focused beam. These observations led Tyndall to the hypothesis that the blue colour of the sky is caused by the scattering of sunlight by particles in the tube and that the hue of the sky changes depending on the atmospheric distances that the light has to travel through. Since white light is composed of all the colors of the rainbow, the atmosphere scatters the blue colour component of the light. But, however, when the sun sets, light now has to travel further and through more atmosphere and more air molecules. As it does so, more of the bluish component is scattered away leaving the reddish waves to travel to your eyes. “Thus, while the reflected light gives us, at noon, the deep azure of the Alpine skies, the transmitted light gives us, at sunset, the warm crimson of the Alpine snows.”, wrote Tyndall. Now, we know that it is molecules and not particles that cause the scattering but Tyndall could not have known because the concept of the molecule did not exist at the time.
Tyndall’s work, undertaken out of curiosity and with no particular intention in mind, led to many further advances and discoveries in other totally unrelated lines of inquiry. It led to the development of a test of optically pure air (sure to be uncontaminated with bacteria and dust because it could not scatter light), which was greatly instrumental in convincing scientists of Pasteur’s claim that bacteria cannot spontaneously generate. Through his blue-skies work, Tyndall was also able to show how lung airways remove particles from air before it is breathed in and reaches the alveoli. In a darkened room containing dust particles, he had the subject breathe into a glass tube. As the subject inhaled the dusty air, Tyndall noticed the intense beam of light getting scattered by the particles as the air made its way into the tube and the airways. However, after exhaling, there was a black gap and no scattering of light occurred due to the fact that the expired air housed no particles. This experiment served to prove that the airways of the lung removed particles from inhaled air before it got to the alveoli (a defense mechanism against disease). Astoundingly enough, fifty years before Fleming’s remarkable discovery, Tyndall was also able to show that penicillium mould could kill bacteria albeit ungrasping the significance of what he had just found and mistakenly believing the antibacterial effect was only due to oxygen deprivation caused by the “thick tough layer of mould”. Further along, Tyndall’s methods led to the discovery of heat-resistant B. subtilis bacterial spores and the development of the gastroscope and the bronchoscope; all remarkable discoveries just because Tyndall was curious as to why the sky was blue! For this reason, curiosity-driven science is often called blue-skies research.
By many accounts, scientists cannot predict the future applications of their current research. As a quintessential case in point, it is often mentioned that pursuant to Michael Faraday’s discovery of a magnet inducing an electric field in a coil, a politician had asked him “But, after all, what use is it?”, whereupon Faraday replied “Why sir, I don’t know but, perhaps some day you will be able to tax it.”
Notwithstanding funding constraints, curiosity driven science still shines up to the very present day. Quite recently, in 2011, Jules Hoffmann won the Nobel prize in Physiology or medicine “for discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.” His discovery came about just because he was curious to know why the fruit fly did not experience any fungal infections. This discovery has tremendous implications for the development of vaccines against infectious diseases.
From Alexander Fleming’s chance observation of the antibiotic effects of the Penicillium mold (a finding that heralded the beginning of the antibiotic era) to Alec Jeffrey’s accidental discovery of DNA fingerprinting as he was just messing around in his lab to Jonathan Beckwith’s isolation of E.coli genes, curiosity-driven research has always delivered. As demonstrated by the examples above, there is an outstanding number of immense discoveries and ideas that have changed our lives and that came out of idle curiosities and the drive to ask why.
“Behind all our practical applications, there exists a region of intellectual action to which practical men have rarely contributed, but from which they draw all their supplies.” – John Tyndall
This is not to say that targeted, goal-oriented research with a definite purpose is not worthwhile. But, it should not be separated from basic blue-skies research. Indeed, many projects which lack translational value have often been mocked and science policy in many countries is increasingly putting more emphasis on research relevance and accountability. This is a problem. It is not sensible to restrict scientific freedom and intellectual creativity. After all, curiosity is the defining quality of human nature and it is how scientists draw their energy. To explore our nature and know our place in it is the ultimate driving force behind all applied research.
Tyndall, J. 1869. On the Blue Colour of the Sky, the Polarization of Sky-light, and on the Polarization of Light by Cloudy Matter Generally. Proceedings of the Royal Society 17: 223-33.
Tyndall, J. 1870. On the action of rays of high refrangibility upon gaseous matter. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 160: 333-65.
Tyndall, J. 1870. On dust and disease. Proceedings of the Royal Institution 6: 1-14.
Tyndall, J. 1877. The optical deportment in the atmosphere in relation to the phenomena of putrefaction and infection. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 166: 27–74.
Tyndall, J. Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews, vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1897).
Featured image courtesy of: CERN