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Knowledge for Knowledge's Sake

This is something I wrote the other day in the comments of a TerrapinTables thread. It's short, but I like it enough that I wanted to post it here on my own blog. It was in response to the following question posed in relation to studying dark matter (prompted by this article), "But tell me this: first, I mean, seriously, aside from knowledge for knowldege's sake, why do we need to know what comprises a galaxy cluster infinity-miles away?" Here is my reply:

First off - I think knowledge for knowledge's sake is a good enough reason to do research. In the same way that some people may find beauty in a painting, others can find beauty in a deeper understanding of the mysteries of our universe. If you're going to question why we need to know about a substance that composes 1/4 of the universe, I could just as easily ask why we have an entire profession dedicated to smearing paint on canvas, or another profession dedicated to plucking guitar strings and beating on drums. (Don't take me the wrong way - I'm not saying the arts aren't worthwhile; I'm saying that I think pure knowledge with no practical applications is just as important.)

But aside from that, who knows where knowledge will lead? Like in the 19th century, when physicists were trying to measure the ether that light travels in, could they have known that it would eventually lead to such practical applications as lasers, CDs and DVDs? Or the geologists of that era, did they really start off thinking that their theories would lead to the abandonment of a literal interpretation of the bible (at least in most of the developed world, not counting the U.S.)?

So there you go - one example of knowledge that led to practical technical applications, and another that had huge societal & cultural implications. I'm sure I could go on listing more, but you get the point.


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