The Importance of Basic Research in Physics and of MIT

author: Charles H. Townes, UC Berkeley
author: Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
published: March 5, 2011,   recorded: October 2007,   views: 3311

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The Importance of Basic Research in Physics and of MIT Two science luminaries pay tribute to MIT’s new Green Center for Physics in this first session of the symposium.

Nobel laureate Charles Townes makes a case for the centrality of basic research in advancing both the U.S. economy and society. Townes recounts how at Bell Laboratories, where he worked in the 1940s, a friend examining resistance in copper wires “found a funny effect” – he had stumbled on the basic principles of the transistor. This incidental discovery led to a revolutionary innovation that has helped transform the world. From personal experience, Townes knows there’s a reluctance to fund scientific work that has no immediate rewards. When Townes was developing the laser, many “thought it was a nice idea, but asked, ‘What good is it?’” Townes said lawyers didn’t see a point in a patent because “light had never been used for communications.” Says Townes, “You can see the resistance to good ideas. You’ve got to have new ideas and society has to be open to them. That’s what physics and basic science is doing.” The many unexpected discoveries that spring up in the course of basic research “pay off enormously,” but the U.S. public and politicians must be reminded of this fact, to prevent a crippling erosion of national scientific and technological growth.

Science, The Endless Frontier: The Continuing Relevance of Vannevar Bush Shirley Ann Jackson draws inspiration from MIT alumnus Vannevar Bush, who helped mobilize the best U.S. R&D talent during World War 2. Bush overcame scientists’ “skepticism and even antagonism toward the concept of federal funding,” says Jackson, promoting collaboration with the government. MIT Radiation Laboratory scientists helped develop electronic countermeasures for the deadly buzz bombs that terrorized Londoners during the war. In peacetime, Bush recommended to President Truman the continued marriage of government, industry and science -- weaving in the humanities and social sciences, too. Bush believed the results of research could be “adapted readily to shifting national needs…and could assist not only in national security but in general economic growth and quality of life,” says Jackson. Bush’s blueprint helped justify a massive infusion of federal money into R&D for many decades. But today, this investment has shrunken to historic lows, says Jackson. “50 years after Sputnik,” she says, “we need to focus on another great global challenge: energy security and sustainability.” This is a “race against time,” requiring multi-sector collaboration, rooted in fundamental research, with no product in mind. Jackson calls for a rejuvenation “on a massive scale” in basic research and education, comparable to the university-government-industry mobilization that began during World War 2.

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