1225 GMT January 20, 2020
Scientists are motivated by many things in their pursuits to understand the way nature works. Some have a heartfelt commitment to bettering humanity, either through medicine or fundamental breakthroughs. Others are just really curious about the way things work, and that's enough for them. Maybe one or two are just in it for the Nobel Prize money.
But often it's argued that if science doesn't lead to an immediate benefit, then it's just useless goofing around by weirdos in laboratories and messy offices.
Often times science does lead to technological innovations, but you wouldn't really know it if you saw it. Consider the development of quantum mechanics, for example.
In the late 1800s some experimental physicists were starting to notice some funky things going on with nature, like the properties of light and electricity.
Responding to that, in the first quarter of the 20th century a few dozen theoretical physicists sweated and poured over arcane mathematics — in some cases even having to invent brand new mathematics altogether just to get the job done. They were doing their best to try to explain a variety of weird experiments in a single coherent picture.
Why were they doing this? Because they were really curious about the way the subatomic world works and just wanted to make sense of it all. They had no higher purpose, no greater calling than pure curiosity itself.
In the end they developed a branch of physics that we call quantum mechanics, the laws governing the very very small in our universe. And to those scientists, that was that. They were ready to move on to tackle the next big problem.
But the revolution in quantum mechanics opened the door to revolutions in other fields. Now that we knew how atoms worked we could unlock the behavior of molecules and completely transform the discipline of chemistry.
With quantum mechanics we realized the true potential of the atom, giving way to everything from nuclear power to nuclear weapons.
The miniaturization of computers in the form of the transistor is undeniably one of the most powerful innovations in the 20th century. An innovation completely impossible without our knowledge of quantum mechanics.
Today it's estimated that roughly 25 percent of the gross domestic products (GDP) of the industrial world is directly tied to our understanding of quantum mechanics. It's so ingrained in our everyday lives that you don't even notice it.
It’s unquestionable that quantum mechanics led to a tremendous technological breakthrough, but if you were transported a hundred years ago and heard the rumblings of the obscure mathematics and jargon of those few dozen theoretical physicists, you might be tempted to simply scoff at their foolishness and wastefulness of resources.
To be fair, they didn't know that it would lead to such revolutions either. But it turns out that once you gain a better understanding of the way nature works, you can turn it to an advantage for everybody.
It just takes a little bit of time.
* This article, by astrophysicist and science journalist Paul M. Sutter, was first published in Forbes magazine.