The lonely bricklayer – A scientific allegory

The lonely bricklayer – A scientific allegory

More than once people have asked me what good is my research for. This is one of the most common questions that is first and foremost in the mind of the general public. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most difficult questions to answer. This is especially true for fundamental research (as opposed to applied / technological research). After all, if you are working specifically on anticancer medications, not a lot of explanation is needed. The same applies to let’s say, engineering, if you want to build better bridges, for instance.

But, why study…

flowers?
Polar bears?
lichens?
worms?

Etc… This question is a little more difficult to answer, because in a real sense, one does not know the potential usefulness of apparently trivial information. A very readable article with some reasons why fundamental science is valuable can be found here.

In this post, I will try to illustrate my opinion of this matter with an example. Let’s think of the wealth of all of human knowledge about nature as a big pyramid, say, the Great Pyramid of Giza. This is a BIG structure, made of about 2,300,000 blocks of granite or limestone, with an average weight of 1,000 kilograms (1 metric ton; some people say a little bit some and some a little bit less).

Now let’s suppose that an “unit of knowledge” (like some data, a scientific paper, etc.) is equivalent to a grain of sand. Just how many grains of sand may fit in the great pyramid?

Easy.

An average grain of sand weights about 50 millionths of a gram (50 micrograms). If we have 2,300,000 blocks at 1000 kilograms a piece we get: 2,300,000 x 1,000,000 = 2,300,000,000,000 micrograms x grain of sand / 50 micrograms = 46,000,000,000,000 grains of sand, or in our example, units of knowledge.

That’s a lot of data… Some of these units are at the base, some at the sides, some at the insides and one, just one, is at the very tip of the pyramid, right on the capstone. This position represents the most useful piece of knowledge at any particular time under a specific circumstance.

But this is a special kind of pyramid, you know, it is fluid. The position of each grain of sand changes unpredictably, allowing for different grains of sand to occupy the capstone position at various times, let’s say, of history. Interesting, huh?

The catch is that one never knows what triggers this shift in position. We can’t control it either and to make things worse, nobody knows exactly what grain of sand needs to be at the very top in a particular moment in history.

Imagine the sand flowing, the forms shifting, until the pyramid is reorganized. Sometimes, there are defective grains of sand, which we discover that they apparently don’t fit anymore and are discarded. They may come back, they may not.

All the possible grains of sand that may form the pyramid of the knowledge of nature are brought by a very special bricklayer, a microbricklayer if you will. Who are called fundamental or basic scientists.

Each of us scientists contribute discrete, small pieces of knowledge to the world. Each of these microbricks is a unit of knowledge as described above. Some add more grains of sand than others, some care more than others, but we all contribute nonetheless.

There are NO inconsequential scientists.

As we said before, we are not sure of the relative importance of any discovery, of any particular grain of sand. For example:

Mendel and his pea plants. He had no idea, he couldn’t have the foggiest notion of how his gardening experiments would be at the uppermost microbrick of the pyramid’s capstone some 100 years later. And I am talking of course, of the beginnings of the genetics revolution, a very much still alive revolution.

Einstein’s 1905 annus mirabilis. His discoveries then were instrumental some fifty-odd years later with satellite technology, etc.

Marie Curie and her discovery of radioactivity… Need I say more?

All the fathers of quantum mechanics, this was a mere curiosity at the time but what is now today the basis for the ubiquitous electronics, and that is being described as a fundamental property of life itself…

Mandelbrot and his Fractals. Another mathematical curiosity at birth. Later on found its applications from weather patterns to the rythm of our hearts…

There are many more examples.

How long will it be until the pyramid starts flowing again, maybe in our lifetime? What unexpected, seemingly useless discoveries will migrate to the capstone? In the meantime, all of us, lonely microbricklayers, keep working, keep adding knowledge to the pyramid, and keep learning…

image

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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7 Comments

  1. Lovely article!
    That’s the beauty of science – it always changes and nothing we learn from it is ever pointless. Many people ask me why am I studying biology and not medicine, chemistry or programming. They think those are truly useful, while biology is often regarded as unimportant. In this century biology should be given more and more importance given the fact that human activities affect entire ecosystems, while too many people and governments fail to realize that our economies heavily rely on nature in its entirety.

  2. Nicely said– there are many who miss the forrest while on their way to study the lichen or mossy patch. Perhaps, the secret of great science lies dormant in all minds. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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