Why am I funding this? Why waste the money on new telescopes and physics labs?
These are certainly valid questions, especially in tight economic times. Isn't it just wasteful spending to fund science that is not trying to produce technology that directly benefits us and our economy?
Well the issue is more complicated than it seems. As an example, take charged coupling devices. When they were first developed in the 1970s-CCDs were expensive but they revolutionized astronomy. Now telescopes could collect far more light than ever before and astronomers could see stars and galaxies better. At that time what good did CCDs do for the general public? Nothing. They only served to make new telescopes more expensive for public money to buy.
Yet it was because of this advance that CCDs were made better and eventually branched out into uses that did benefit the general public, such as medical imaging and now digital cameras.
Digital cameras of course have changed our lives and can be found in cell phones and other devices now as well. None of this, however, would have happened if it were not for funding that allowed astronomers to put CCDs on their telescopes.
Surely an understanding of the photoelectric effect probably didn't seem important to the general public at the time Einstein described the reason for the phenomenon in 1905.
The photoelectric effect is when light strikes a surface and causes an electric current to flow. What was strange about it was it didn't matter how intense the light was if the light was not energetic enough, it could not kick electrons free to create electricity. Only once the light reached a high enough energy did an electric current begin. This was confusing to scientists because they understood light to be a wave and if it was a wave it must be able to build up enough energy to start a current but this clearly wasn't the case. Einstein's breakthrough was to say light was clearly behaving like a particle in this situation, so in certain circumstances light behaves like a wave and in others it behaves like a particle. (As a note, Einstein won his Nobel Prize for this paper and not for his paper on relativity for which he is most famous).
What good could this knowledge have brought? Why would we fund this kind of research today? Well, the solar cells that are used in many different things, from traffic signs to calculators, work on this principle. Without this understanding, many things that we take for granted would not be possible. Of course at the time nobody could have seen what would have come out of this research.
Einstein in his later years also fought strongly against quantum mechanics. He tried to prove it wrong and in every attempt he failed. His longest-lived attempt was in a paper affectionately known as the EPR paradox (EPR for Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen for his two collaborators).
They basically said that quantum mechanics couldn't be right because it required a superluminal connection (that is faster than light connection, and Einstein had made an assumption that nothing traveled faster than light) between two quantum particles. The phenomenon became known as quantum entanglement. Einstein used this as a way to "show" that quantum mechanics was incomplete.
Entanglement was for a long time a question mark for quantum mechanics, which had been so successful in other areas. That is until an experiment performed by Alain Aspect removed all doubt that this strange phenomenon occurred and did not require some deeper level of explanation as Einstein had suspected would be necessary.
Of course it took a lot of time and money to produce Aspect's result in the lab, so what was the point of it all? More than an understanding of theoretical physics, entanglement may be our savior for computing power. Currently the doubling of computing power has been achieved by making things on computer chips closer and closer together, but there is a limit to how long you can continue to move everything closer together.
However there could possibly be a way out of this problem and that is by creating what are known as quantum computers. The way of currently making quantum computers is through entanglement, though the computers are not yet capable of what regular computers can do, the hope is that through advances quantum computers could blow the doors off of a regular computer, thanks to entanglement.
So the next time they talk of cutting funding to science as a way to save money remember that science, no matter how strange it may seem, has brought plenty of innovations and money making devices to fruition.
Jeremie is a SUNY Plattsburgh graduate. For comments, suggestions and questions please email to firstname.lastname@example.org.