Monday, 2 June 2014

A barbershop quartet sings of science

Last week I finally learned the value of pure science research. From my hairdresser.

By pure science I mean science without any obvious industrial, medical, or economic application. Science without any obvious application at all. In pallid political parlance: without "impact". In short: useless.

I do useless science. I study black holes. No, worse: I use massive taxpayer-funded supercomputers to calculate the sound of two of them colliding. And if you think that smacks of postmodern Zen philosophy high on the hallucinogenic of an outrageous grant, it gets even worse: what I really care about are the subtle variations in these cosmic whispers for thousands of only very slightly different collisions. Is one black hole bigger than the other? What if you put a bit of spin on it? That's what I do. Occasionally the government asks me for a "research impact statement", and I struggle to write ten A4 12-point-font pages that convey a sheepish shrug of the shoulders. Isn't there an emoticon for that? If I found one, my relative usefulness to society would skyrocket.

Each month I am amazed when my salary arrives. They are paying me for this? With that money I can buy food. I can pay the mortgage. I can send my toddler to daycare. I can support my entire life, and purely on the basis of answering questions for which I can see no conceivable practical benefit to anyone ever. I understand why two colliding black holes are partially converted into an exploding tidal wave of energy. That's easy. What I don't understand is how the gravitational waves are converted into my groceries.

Yes, I know all the arguments. I got the "Why Science Matters" brochure when I signed up. I know that it answers a deep human need to understand the universe. I know that around the world there are millions of people starving, diseased, or fighting in pointless wars, who may appear to be dying in writhing unbearable agony, but in fact deep inside they are at peace, because they know that somewhere some tireless scientist is diligently ensuring that their latest black-hole paper contains the maximum number of self-citations.

Yes, I know all that. And ordinary people know it, too. They have told me, on those unavoidable occasions when I've met them. "Wow!" they gush when I tell them what I do. "That's fascinating! The work you do is so important!"

That's very kind of you, generous tax-paying plebeian. But you're only saying that because you have not actually seen scientists doing pure research. You have not seen the research institutes that public money has purchased. You have not been to the high-level managerial meetings at these institutes, where the top scientists argue exhaustively over what brand of espresso machine to put in the kitchen. You have not flown to the conferences in exotic locations, where the scientists gather to discuss new variations on a single term in a pages-long equation that describes a minor physical effect that they are all proud to admit cannot conceivably ever be measured. You have not realised that none of them even noticed the latest breakthrough result for this equation because they were too busy answering a vitally urgent email that could finally clinch the espresso machine argument. And you have not witnessed the one session where they actually come alive with passionate debate over carefully prepared arguments, to decide the location of the next conference.

That is what these "pure scientists" are doing with public money.

So I don't think it is so surprising that I felt a tad guilty until now.

But not any more. Now I understand.

What happened?

I went to the hairdresser.

I propped myself up in the big chair and put on the big bib. He asked how I wanted my hair. I thought hard over just what elaborate new styling would best translate my complex inner feelings into a bold outward statement, and replied, "Shorter." Then we tried to have a conversation.

The hairdresser asked me what I do. I told him. I waited for the inevitable "Wow!" response, and yet another twang at my conscience.

It never came. He lowered his scissors, stepped back, and bluntly asked, "What the hell's the use of that?"

How did I respond? Another sheepish shrug of the shoulders? In the circumstances that could have been fatal.

"It's not very useful at all," I apologised. He snorted in disgust. That was the end of the conversation. Then, while I sat in shame, he circled with his scissors, proud in the execution of his own ancient profession, and cut bits off me.

But as I sat there, I began to think.

How much taxpayer money does the government spend each year on pure science? At most 10% of the whole science budget, which is maybe 1% of the total tax revenue. If the average tax rate is about 25%, and the average income is around 30,000 pounds (or whatever currency you pay tax in, dollars or euros or Swiss francs), then we're left with each person paying, every year, less than a tenner for pure science [1].

Now ask yourself: how much does the average person pay every year to get their hair done? Even scruffy scientists spend more than 10 pounds.

Now, which is more useful?

Sure, a truly useful scientific discovery by those intentionally useless scientists is a long shot. Maybe only one of them does something worthwhile every ten years. Maybe you can argue that 99.9% of them are self-indulgent layabouts whose contribution to human society is roughly on a par with the prison population. Maybe. But then you realise: however small their contribution, whatever minuscule number you come up with after the most cynical estimate, it is still greater than zero.

And isn't zero what you get from the hairdressers? Or, as I should perhaps henceforth refer to them, the hair care industry. The aesthetic-industrial haircare complex!

What sort of bizarre, perverse notion is it that we should spend vast amounts of money, and time, and effort, and, for some people, great mental strain and anxiety, on the way we arrange a natural bodily growth? Most men shave off their facial hair. Why don't we all just shave off the whole lot? If we assumed that it was the height of preposterous superficiality to judge another human being by something so inconsequential as their hair, would our lives really be any the poorer? We could just as well decorate ourselves with artfully designed skull caps [2].

Well, we haven't done that. And I don't think we're going to. After all, no-one seriously begrudges spending a bit of cash to get their hair done. When you think too deeply about it, it does all seem a little silly, but in the end it doesn't cost very much to indulge these silly whims. In comparison, pure science is far less silly, and costs far less money. So if my hairdresser can strut around his salon with no hint of the onset of a metaphysical crisis, then surely I can sit in my office and stare into space and feel positively content. And when the next "research impact statement" request arrives, I can cheerily submit a jaunty charcoal sketch of my middle finger.


1. I have no idea what the actual numbers are. That doesn't matter. Physicists are highly trained at making excellent order-of-magnitude estimates that prevent anything so pedestrian and proletariat as looking up numbers. More precise calculations are welcome.

2. Obviously the skull caps would have to incur a cost of far less than 10 pounds per year, otherwise my argument would be rendered absurd. And we couldn't have that -- not with it looking, up until now, so profound and water-tight and not in any way contrived or childish.

1 comment:

  1. At first I thought they would kick you out, but now I think they should give you a new grant to explain this to more people.


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