Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What's it all about?

It is that time of year again. A time when you get together with your family, grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins that you haven’t seen in a year and they ask you the dreaded question; ‘why?’ What do they get out of the research you have tried to explain to them for the thousandth time?

So I thought I would ask around the department and other scientists to see what reasons we use to come to work everyday. What are we really looking for? As researchers and enthusiasts, when we look up at the sky and take measurements of the universe. What is the motivation behind it? How do we justify it to ourselves every day?
In all honesty those are not easy questions to answer and I cannot guarantee that this will satisfy them. They are purposefully vague and if asked differently can provoke a range of responses from defensive to finance, education and technology.

Astrophysics occupies a small subsection of research known as blue-skies projects, a region of scientific research where “real world” applications are not immediately apparent. A postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter said, “With blue-skies research it is hard to see its effects locally. We are hedging our bets and looking far ahead on things that might impact us one day in the future.”

We have direct evidence of what the future holds with so called blue-skies research. Space missions like Voyager built and deployed in the 1970’s are still sending us information back from the edge of the solar system and beyond. Their missions were designed for applications 15 years down the line. The Kepler mission, launched by NASA in 2009 to hunt for transiting extra-solar planets, began its design phase when the knowledge of exoplanets was in its infancy and yet today it has offered us a wealth of information in the field.

The future of science in this country is not us, we are working in the future those preceding us dreamed of, science in this country is dependent on the inspiration of others to continue to use and develop ideas we are not in the position to implement yet. 
“Our chief financial, socio-economical, goals is to get people into science. We take on a lot of researches as a field, we know that most cannot carry it on as a job but hopefully we get a lot of people interested in science and they then can go on and do a lot more useful things for society. “

University research departments no longer dominate the technology market, if we want a better camera we go to a technology company with their own research departments. So with knock on technology out of the picture what is it that we are really doing here everyday? Why does our curiosity continue to reach out to the stars with little or no application evident on the Earth to further mankind’s dominance of the planet?

One of the main reasons we are asked this question is based in the financial support from the government for funding.  This brings to mind a famous quote most often attributed to Sir Winston Churchill when asked about not cutting money for the Arts during the war was, “If we cut the money to arts and drama then what we are fighting for.” The amount of money that goes towards astrophysics research in this country, and the world for that matter is a luxury but it is a small one, a very small one in the grand scheme of things.  Astronomer Paul A. Wilson stated, “I find that astrophysics is sort of the same. It is necessary for humanity to be able to learn and to try and answer some of the most fundamental questions such as why we are here and where we came from?”

Along with the philosophical and existential questions that come to mind when identifying a motivation behind our research it always came back to the science. You have to go home at night and be proud of the work you have done, it is not a place for egos you don’t want to go home thinking, ‘yes I just crushed this guys research and nicked his funding,’ if you want to think like that you should go into politics. As a scientist it is all about discovery, is our research furthering our understanding. Is what we have been working on sparking the imagination of another child willing to look up at the stars in awe at what we know and what we have yet to discover.

I ask you then to question what it is that you are looking for when you look up at the sky with childlike glee and wonder. Did Douglas Adams get it right; is it the ultimate question to life the universe and everything? Is it the question rather than the answer that holds the key to knowledge and the nature of all things?