In July 2012 scientists identified the experimental signature of the Higgs boson, which until then was a theoretical particle. This finding was important to consolidate the model that describes the fundamental particles of the universe and their interactions, which is known in physics as the standard model. A part of the opinion public believed that the experiment could extinguish life on earth and even the portion that had a vision not so catastrophic about the experiment did not understood the exact meaning of scientific onslaught. In part, public opinion turned to the subject due to the market made by physicist Leon Lederman who published in 1993 a book entitled “The God particle: if the universe is the answer, what is the question?“. The name “God particle” has brought popularity to the Higgs boson, but also some confusion. Before the experiment give some result was common to hear from public opinion that the man was kidding of God. How could the public opinion think so if not by the way offered by the term “God particle.” To be fair, nobody can take the merit of Peter Higgs.
I remember having followed the news at the time of discovery and have seen an interview, in particular, that called my attention. A reporter, apparently informed, interviewed a physicist from USP, and another from UNESP. Near at the end of the interview, the reporter asked about the applicability of the discovery. Physicists looked one each other and tried to explain to her that we must be content with knowing more about how things are as they are and not otherwise. The reporter cannot hide the expression of disappointment and exclaims, but a so expensive experiment cannot be just to satisfy a curiosity!
If you are a graduate student or a researcher, it is likely that you have been invited to answer the following question: “What is your research all about?” or “What is the use of it for society?“. This is an issue that has been discussed in scientific circles for a very long time. The affair of utilitarianism. When request some grant for our research by funding agencies we are asked if our work will generate patents or technological products. A distinctive feature of science is that it essentially target the object to know his without aiming first to act on it.
Society has always been more interested in the applicability of a discovery than the satisfaction of knowing and it can determine the amount of time spent on research, and the amount of resources invested in it. Would be this a trend towards changing conception of science? I don’t think so. If you look well, the history shows us that our society has always valued discoveries that could become technological products in the short term. Few were interested by the work of Michael Faraday and James Maxwell on electromagnetism. Just many years later equations were used to govern the processes that make our appliances work. We see the fruits of scientific curiosities like Maxwell when an airport door opens for us without we use the handle.
The discourse of utilitarianism brings a new way of classifying science. Today the distinction between basic science (those interested in learning) and applied science (that interested in acting) is almost official. The concern is that this distinction means we now classify science based more on political than epistemological criteria or with a view to their methods.
This work by Alison Felipe Alencar Chaves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.