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Re: Spinoffs

I am rather surprised that people on this list are taking the idea of
"spinoffs" seriously at all. The whole concept of justifying
expenditures on science and technology on the basis that they will
produce spinoffs strikes me as akin to prostitution. "Hey there, big
boy. Spend a few billions with me and I'll show you some spinoffs
that will knock your socks off! Of course, I can't tell you what they
are before you spend the money, but you won't be disappointed. I've
got some stuff you wouldn't believe" (spoken with an erotic

The technological fruits of science are out there for us to see,
although if we analyze the details, I think we'll find that science
has benefited more from technology than vice versa, and there is a
lot of technology that was found without any understanding of the
underlying science. Check out Henry Bauer's book, "Scientific
Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method" (Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1994) for a more detailed discussion of this. But
whether they are there or not is in the final analysis, irrelevant to
science. Science is the pursuit of understanding about how the world
is put together. It is not about the benefits to mankind that will
flow from it. While they are there, they do not all prove to be
benefits, and, more importantly, they are neither guaranteed nor are
they "deserved" in the sense that we have earned them in any way.
They are just there.

Two quotations, both attributed to Faraday, but perhaps falsely, are
relevant. In the first he was supposed to have been speaking with
Queen Victoria who asked him, following a demonstration of some
phenomenon he had discovered, "Of what use is this discovery of
yours?" and he is said to have responded, "Madam, of what use is a
newborn baby?" I read that the Queen was not amused. In the second,
he is said to have responded to the same question from the Prime
Minister (I believe it was Gladstone) upon being shown a model of his
dynamo, "Sir, someday you will be able to tax this."

We cannot direct science to any end. And it is dishonest to offer to
do some version of science as something that will provide some
previously specified benefit to humankind. Just as we justify the
arts as activities that define our humanity, we have to justify
science the same way. Will the money we devote to these activities
always be spent wisely? Probably not, but we cannot predict that in
advance with any reliability. If the public chooses not to support
science, that is their choice, and it is probably our fault for not
making the case strongly enough, but to try to sell science based on
its presumed benefits to humanity seems immoral to me. The problem of
public support of science compared to public support of the arts is
that in the modern era, doing science is so much more expensive. But
like the arts, science is worth supporting because it is part of what
makes us human. Probing the limits of knowledge is a uniquely human
activity and for that reason alone, it is worth supporting. I am fond
of quoting the biologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi on this subject: "If
any student comes to me and says he wants to be useful to mankind and
go into research to alleviate human suffering, I advise him to go
into charity instead. Research wants real egoists, who seek their
own pleasure and satisfaction, but find it in solving the puzzles of


Hugh Haskell

(919) 467-7610

Let's face it. People use a Mac because they want to, Windows because they
have to..