Sometimes science works incrementally. One finding leads to another and slowly a large problem is figured out by solving smaller problems one after the other. Other times great leaps and breakthroughs occur from unexpected places. Neil deGrasse Tyson gives an example of this in the invention of the microwave oven (that I’ll describe more below). Many of these off-shoot discoveries occur when people work to seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake rather than work to solve a particular problem. The more we know and the more tools we have, the easier it is to tackle a problem.
Scientific work primarily targeted to discover new knowledge is generally known as basic science while work targeted to address a specific problem is known as applied science. Funding for research is drying up and more and more emphasis is placed on applied science that will generate predictable results. True breakthroughs though, are often made unexpectedly by discovering something that no one could have predicted. Below are 5 examples of important discoveries or products that were developed thanks to research in basic science.
1) Radar Dishes and Microwaves Both Melt Candy Bars for the Same Reason
Microwave Ovens were more discovered than invented. The technology and development behind microwaves is tied to the development of radar for military use (although radar is based in Maxwell and Hertz’ basic science study of electromagnetism). Percy Spencer spent his life working on radar communication. The story goes that one day in 1945 he was standing in front of an active radar dish and noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had begun to melt. Naturally curious he then did a few experiments to determine whether the radar waves could cook other foods. He placed popcorn kernels in front of the radar that then popped. Another experiment involved a more compact enclosure and an egg which exploded on a colleague’s face. Messing around with radar waves eventually led to compact ovens using the same technology rebranded as microwaves.
2) Lasers Pointers are Reminders from Planck and Einstein to Study Quantum Physics
The laser, which is used in as many places as DVD players, fiber optic cables, eye surgery, and tattoo removal, would not be possible without knowledge of quantum mechanics discovered by Max Planck and then expanded by Albert Einstein. Planck worked to show that the energy in light is made of chunks of specific size (called photons), while Einstein found that the electrons of an object could be stimulated to make light of a specific color. Einstein proposed this basis for the laser 40 years before it was put into practice in the first laser made by Theodore H Maiman. This first laser was described as a “solution without a problem,” but it didn’t take long before lasers were quickly adapted for use in destroying an eye tumor a year later.
3) MRI is What Happens When You Say “If I Can Do This to an Atom, I Can Do This to a Person”
Magnetic Resonance Imaging gives us unprecedented ability in looking into living bodies and finding diseases in organs such as the heart and brain. This technology is an offshoot of atomic physics and sees application in many Chemistry labs even today. Isabor Rabi first demonstrated that the spinning of atomic particles could be measured using rhythmic magnetic pulses as early as 1938. This quickly earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944, but it wasn’t until 1974 that this method was expanded to make an MRI image of a live mouse. The 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine was given to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for this work in developing MRI as a medically practical way of determining structure from atomic spin.
4) Modern Molecular Biology was Found in a Hot Spring
As a molecular biologist I have a soft spot for Taq Polymerase. In the 1970s Alice Chien working in the lab of John Trela at the University of Cincinnati asked whether the enzyme that makes DNA in Escherichia coli bacteria (DNA Polymerase) is similar to the polymerase that makes DNA in bacteria that live in hot springs. They isolated the polymerase and found similarities and differences between it and the E. coli enzyme. Specifically, this polymerase from hot springs was able to work at high temperatures where the commonly studied E. coli polymerase could not. Ten years later Kary Mullis was working on a way to copy DNA in a test tube. Initially his method wouldn’t work because the E. coli enzyme he used could not withstand the high temperatures needed. He used Taq Polymerase (enzyme from the hot spring bacteria) and it worked perfectly. This enzyme revolutionized the way molecular biology has been done allowing for the copying of DNA to study genes in the laboratory.
5) CRISPR is How a Bacterium Defends Itself Against Viruses
The discovery of specific gene alteration by CRISPR started out as research into how bacteria protect themselves from viruses. In 2012 Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were looking into how bacteria like Streptococcus pyogenes use small RNA molecules to fend off invading viruses. Working together they found that this small RNA molecule is being used as an address label that leads a protein to cut a specific piece of DNA. This is useful for bacteria killing viruses but it didn’t take long to determine that this system could be expanded to allow for precise gene editing. This has been heavily implemented in labs across the world studying ways to enhance crops, create new animal models of disease, or even change our own genes to cure genetic disorders.
Again, funding is limited and everyone prefers to see clear results, but I believe we need to invest in basic science to achieve the next breakthroughs in science. It wouldn’t make sense to look for the next gene editing technology in how bacteria prevents themselves from getting the flu. It doesn’t make sense to invest in quantum mechanics research to treat cancer; but the advances in one field expand into other fields in unexpected and often hugely impactful ways. Investing in knowledge for knowledge’s sake may be the only way we conquer the challenges that are too big for us to solve right now.