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We Need Undirected Research

By Byron Roe

Mosaic website

Credit: National Center for Supercomputing Applications/University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

Screenshot of Mosaic, the first web browser.

Undirected research, for me, is a misnomer. What some call "undirected" is actually research driven by an individual's own excitement, curiosity and unique ideas, and it is not just random tinkering. The research can be basic or applied, within a large program or outside of the mainstream. It is not directed at some preordained final result, but is rather self-directed.

Undirected research carries enormous intellectual interest. We want to understand who we are, what we are made of, what is the universe, what is it made of, and how did it start and evolve? A very eloquent statement was made by Robert Wilson in his testimony to Congress in April 1969 to support the building of Fermilab: "[T]his new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending."

At the same time, undirected research has immense practical importance. While research in physics is a good example, the same kind of argument can be made for other sciences. To me it is clear that during the past century, every twenty years or so, something so spectacular is found that it makes major changes to world society as a whole. Often, the discovery is not anticipated in advance, even by the experts working in the field. Sometimes it is not appreciated by experts or funders even right after it is discovered. This has profound consequences for the support of undirected research by society and for the importance of diversity of research directions.

Consider some examples
Nuclear energy. In 1917, Ernest Rutherford and his technician, William Kay, set up an experiment in which they hit nitrogen atoms with alpha particles. In a long series of exhausting tests, they showed that the collision liberated the nucleus of a hydrogen atom. Rutherford had achieved the transmutation of one element into another. Surprisingly, there was very little interest in either the scientific or popular press when he published his results in 1919. (www.mosi.org.uk/media/33871092/ernestrutherford.pdf)

Rutherford's work was driven by curiosity. In 1933, he noted at a scientific meeting and later in the journal Nature that "These transformations of the atom are of extraordinary interest to scientists but we cannot control atomic energy to an extent which would be of any value commercially, and I believe we are not likely ever to be able to do so."(www.aip.org/history/mod/fission/fission1/02.html)

In 1939, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann bombarded uranium with neutrons and claimed that they had produced an atom chemically similar to barium. Lise Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, explained this as the uranium nucleus splitting into two roughly equal halves with the emission of several neutrons. Scientists quickly saw the potential importance of this work. This exothermic reaction with the emission of more neutrons was the basis for the chain reaction which gave rise to nuclear power and bombs. Within six years the first atomic bomb ended World War II. 

All of this work taken together was responsible for nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and extensive medical and industrial uses for radioactive elements. It is (in spite of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant) likely that some form of nuclear power will be an essential part of the power needed for the future of humanity. [(e.g., read Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, David J.C. MacKay (2009))].

Lasers. In the late 1950s optics was considered a backwater field by many in physics. The development of lasers and non-linear optics rejuvenated the field. This began when Charles Townes joined the Columbia University faculty in 1948. In 1951 Townes conceived the idea of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Early suggestions of this possibility were also made by Nicolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov, as well as by Joseph Weber. Both Niels Bohr and Isadore Rabi (a Nobel prize winner in the field and chair of the Columbia University Physics Department) told Townes he was wasting his time (The Guardian UK, May 4, 2005). In 1953, Townes and colleagues built a working maser. According to the Wikipedia biography of Townes, even just a few months before the first successful experiment, Rabi and Polycarp Kusch urged him to stop, insisting the research was just a waste of money.

Four years later, Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, then at Bell Labs, began a serious study of the infrared- and later the visible-light laser ("light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation"). The concept originally was called an "optical maser." In 1958, Bell Labs filed a patent application for their proposed optical maser; Schawlow and Townes submitted a manuscript of their theoretical calculations to the Physical Review, published that year in Volume 112, Issue No. 6. In 1957 Gordon Gould noted his ideas for an optical maser. In 1958 additional papers appeared by Schawlow and Townes and by Prokhorov. In 1960, Theodore Maiman invented the ruby laser, considered to be the first successful optical or light laser.

As we all know, today lasers are everywhere. DVDs and price tags are read by lasers. Lasers are used for printing documents from computers. Lasers are now ubiquitous in surveying instruments. Lasers are used to cut materials in industry and are used in eye surgery. These are only a sampling of the extensive uses for lasers within our modern world.

High-field superconductors
. The first report of fabricating a wire that stayed superconducting when subjected to a large magnetic field occured in 1961. [J.E Kunzler, et.al. "Superconductivity in Nb3Sn at high current density in a magnetic field of 88 kilogauss," Phys. Rev. Lett. 6, 89 1961).]. This work was the culmination of work at Bell Labs by Bernd Matthias. Shortly after the article appeared, John Kunzler described their results at a University of Michigan colloquium which I attended. He related the following anecdote concerning the discovery: When he first found that their material remained superconducting in a field of several kilogauss and seemed to be able to go higher, his boss at Bell Laboratories was quite skeptical and said that he would give him a bottle of good scotch for every kilogauss above 5 kilogauss that he found it would go. The boss welshed at about 72 kilogauss.

High-field superconductors are now used in MRI and in small cyclotrons in hospitals, in the magnets of most large particle accelerators, and are being developed as possible lossless power transmission lines. There is research in using them for magnetically levitating trains (to remove friction).

The world-wide web. Email and the TCP/IP protocol had been known for some time. Various networks in the United States and abroad made it possible to exchange email world wide. However, the development that really sparked the internet was the development of the HTML markup language. In 1989, while working at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee invented a network-based implementation of the hypertext concept. By releasing his invention to public use, he ensured the technology would become widespread. For his work in developing the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee received the Millennium technology prize in 2004. The immediate purpose of his work was to enhance communication between physicists working on experiments at CERN and their colleagues at their home institutions. I was on sabbatical working on a Large Electron-Positron Collider experiment (LEP) experiment at CERN at that time, and this was an unexpected development even to many of us working at CERN. This was not a direct result of a particle physics experiment, but was a direct result of the instrumentation for the experiment. Cutting edge experiments also often generate new cutting edge technology.

As we all know, the internet has made a revolution in the way we communicate with each other. The physicists who designed LEP had no idea that their work would lead to Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon.What might have been: muon-catalyzed fusion. A result which came close to having a profound effect is muon-catalyzed fusion. When a negative muon is trapped in an atomic orbit around a deuterium-hydrogen molecule, the orbit is very small. The deuteron and proton are pulled close together and have a chance to fuse into helium-3 and emit a gamma ray releasing about 5.5 MeV of energy. Andrei Sakharov and Frederick Frank predicted the phenomenon of muon-catalyzed fusion before 1950 and Yakov Zel'dovich studied the phenomenon of muon-catalyzed fusion in 1954. However, it became well known only when Luis Alvarez and colleagues were analyzing the outcome of some experiments with muons incident on a hydrogen bubble chamber at Berkeley in 1956. This turned out to be apparently not quite practical for power production, but if the muon had had a slightly longer lifetime, it would have been the practical path to controlled fusion reactors.

A cautionary tale: the personal computer
When I was an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, I was fortunate to be taught first-year physics by George Pake, who was chair of the department. Professor Pake later became the Chancellor of the University and afterwards President of the American Physical Society. Jack Goldman, the chief scientist at Xerox, saw the future of Xerox to be digital and hired Pake as Vice-President in charge of research.

At Xerox, Pake assembled a stellar team of remarkable computer scientists. Within a few years they had invented the personal computer. They invented the mouse, the ethernet for transferring information between computers, the personal printer, which used normal paper rather than the computer paper of the time, and the software "Smalltalk" to make all this work. Unfortunately there was a serious lack of communication between the scientists, who didn't explain it well, and middle management, who simply didn't see the importance of the work. Management did like the printer and adopted that, but didn't see the point of the rest.

Since they didn't appreciate what had been done they didn't see the point of keeping it all confidential, and a few people were shown the effort. One young man who came, Steve Jobs, then went back to Apple and used most of these innovations for the MacIntosh computer. This sad story (for Xerox) is well described in the book Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer, by Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander (1988)

How can we foster a resurgence of undirected research?  Based on past experience, such exploratory effort may well continue to be extremely important in the coming century.  Since we often do not anticipate the discoveries in advance and they do not come every day, we should broadly support undirected research. Furthermore, this support should be increased, not decreased. Five and ten year plans for a field are necessary. However, it should continually be recognized that new results may mean the old plans need to be substantially revised.

We have been fortunate that most of these developments have occurred in the United States in the past century. As world-wide science keeps advancing, this will not always be true. However, even if something new is developed abroad, we can participate in the fruits of the result if we have a strong scientific effort in that area. This happened with the development of the HTML markup language. We must be sure that we do not narrow down our efforts too much to specific, currently popular items.The loss of the great industrial laboratories for basic research (Bell, RCA, Westinghouse, Ford, Xerox, etc.) has hurt basic research. Part of the problem has been the disconnect of the laboratories and management as spectacularly illustrated by Xerox, and also by the continuing trend of industries to look at the profits for the next quarter, rather than for long-term growth. It would be very useful for science, for the industries, and for the country to rebuild that effort, but keep better watch for discoveries which can produce profits. Rebuilding these labs would add considerably to the diversity of support, and go a long way towards reinvigorating scientific research.

Byron Roe is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI.

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