Pioneering Physicist Enrico Fermi on the “Utility” of Science, the Aim of Knowledge, and Our Ultimate Responsibility to Nature
By Maria Popova
On the train ride home from Thanksgiving with my makeshift family, I sat next to a middle-aged man animated by the barely repressed urge to talk. In that woeful way we have of mistaking other human beings for interruptions, I was at first vexed by this violation of my solitude — sorely needed recovery for this introvert after days in a human beehive, however beloved. But his enthusiasm was irresistible — we eventually struck up a conversation. Within minutes, he had told me his life-story: He was born to an alcoholic mother who killed one of his sisters by throwing the baby into the bathtub in a drunken rage. The remaining children were scattered across foster homes and eventually adopted into different families. Bereft of a formal education, he now lived in Long Island, working a blue collar job, having always believed he had four biological sisters — until he took a genetic test and discovered a fifth sister of whom none of the other siblings knew. After connecting via Facebook, they had just met for the first time. He was now traveling home from Utah, where she lived — a thirty-hour train journey he had taken because he couldn’t afford airfare and had a mortal fear of flying anyway, he told me.
I asked how he felt about such a major existential recalibration — after having gained something so extraordinary in this world of losses. “Like a million dollars,” he beamed. He had also discovered that, although he had always thought he was Irish, Eastern European, North African, and Spanish blood coursed through his veins, which made him feel like a proud “citizen of the world.”
This simple, kind man, who looked to be in his mid-sixties — born right around the discovery of the double helix — was a living testament to the perennial and perennially misguided question as to the practical utility of scientific breakthroughs. When Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick were laboring to discern the molecular structure of DNA, they didn’t envision — they couldn’t have envisioned — that a man in Long Island would one day spit into a plastic tube he could afford on his meager salary and find his long-lost sister in Utah, returning home with a new lease on life. As he told me the story of meeting his newfound kin, he showed me photos of them — how astoundingly alike they looked — on his smartphone, which compresses data into digital images with the help of imaginary numbers — Euler’s eighteenth-century feat of abstract mathematics with roots in Ancient Greece. Those digital images are encoded with location data based on the phone’s GPS function, which puts into practice Einstein’s relativity theory. None of these scientists imagined, much less planned for, these applications of their discoveries, at once utterly mundane in the general context of today and utterly miraculous in the particular context of my train companion’s life.
The pioneering Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi (September 29, 1901–November 28, 1954) addressed this civilizational short-sightedness about the practical returns of scientific research in a lecture he delivered in January of 1952, cited in Fermi Remembered (public library).
Focusing on his particular interest in particle physics, Fermi — who was erroneously awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938 for a discovery Lise Meitner would soon invalidate but was nonetheless a brilliant physicist of profound and lasting contribution to science — wrote:
Some of you may ask what is the good of working so hard merely to collect a few facts which will bring no pleasure except to a few long hairs who love to collect such things and will be of no use to anybody, because only few specialists at best will be able to understand them? In answer to such question I may venture a fairly safe prediction. [The] history of science and technology has constantly taught us that scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. It seems to me improbable that this effort to get at the structure of matter should be an exception to the rule — what is less certain, and what we fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.
Complement with Abraham Flexner’s timeless case for the usefulness of useless knowledge and pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff on the value of unremembered work, then revisit the story of Marie Curie’s little-known humanitarian work with X-ray ambulances, which saved countless lives also using technology based on science the utility of which could not have been envisioned at the time of discovery.
Published November 27, 2017