Relation between applied and pure science

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TOP ARTICLE | In The Name Of Science

11 Mar 2009, 0005 hrs IST, Stephen Quake

The snobbish idea that pure science is in some way superior to applied science dates to antiquity, when Plutarch says of Archimedes: "Regarding the business of mechanics and every utilitarian art as ignoble and vulgar, he gave his zealous devotion only to those subjects whose elegance and subtlety are untrammelled by the necessities of life."

The reality appears to have been quite different, as Archimedes was not just the greatest mathematician of the ancient world, but also a clever inventor who drew inspiration from numerous practical problems. Archimedes was one of the first to think deeply about fluid physics, and while many people know the famous story about his discovery of the principle of buoyancy (he saw the water level rise as he stepped into the bath, then ran naked through the streets yelling "eureka") few know exactly what he was looking for ("eureka" means "I found it" in ancient Greek).

In fact, this discovery is intimately linked with a practical problem he had been asked to solve: King Hiero wanted to know if he had been cheated by an unscrupulous jeweller who may have given him a crown that was not solid gold. Archimedes solved this problem by measuring the density of the crown via its buoyancy. His practical contributions to fluid physics also include the invention of a screw pump that became widely adopted for irrigation.

There are numerous other examples of great mathematicians and scientists who wandered between pure and applied problems over the course of their careers. Carl Friedrich Gauss moved from number theory to land surveying and geodesy. Lord Kelvin worked on problems as abstract as the nature of entropy while helping discover the second law of thermodynamics, and also played a key role in laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable. In the 20th century, Nobel laureate Pierre Gilles de Gennes took inspiration from messy problems in industrial chemistry to develop beautiful theories of fundamental physics. Another contemporary Nobel laureate, Charles Townes, noted that not only was his own work inspired by applied physics but also that numerous discoveries in astronomy, including the entire field of radioastronomy, were serendipitous accidents made by people developing applied technologies.

These transcendent figures in the history of science flourished by moving back and forth between pure and applied problems. In today's more specialised world, there are numerous artificial divisions between pure and applied work. The stereotyped view is that the applied scientists control the lion's share of funding, while the basic scientists control the most prestigious journals and prizes. The reality is more complicated and lies somewhere in between.

What remains true is that practical problems can be equally compelling as fundamental ones, and often lead in turn to the discovery of new fundamental science. In particular, there is an intimate connection between the invention of new technology and its application to scientific discovery. My own research has certainly benefited from this interplay. I was trained to do pure physics at a certain point but became interested in developing new measurement technology.

I began developing microfluidic chips, which is the technical name for what i like to call small plumbing and eventually figured out with my collaborators how to make small chips that had thousands of miniature valves on them. I realised that we had invented the biological equivalent of the integrated circuit. Instead of a silicon chip with wires and transistors, we built rubber chips with channels and valves. This seemed like a universal tool with which we could automate and expand biology, just as the integrated circuit automated and expanded computation and mathematics.

After a serendipitous meeting with the structural biologist James Berger, one decided to focus on protein crystallisation as an application it seemed like a logical choice and there would be substantial engineering economies of scale that one could achieve. What we eventually stumbled on was in fact a rich playground of very basic problems surrounding the physics of crystallisation, some of which continues to occupy me to this day.

Another adventure in small plumbing started with our attempt to use it to create highly multiplexed assays a fairly low-key engineering project. This ultimately led to the development of a sophisticated commercial DNA analysis machine of phenomenal precision and complexity (28 metres of plumbing compressed into a few square centimetres!). These DNA analysis chips are now used by biologists in applications ranging from Alaskan salmon fishery management to quality control of seeds for agricultural suppliers. They have also found applications in stem cell biology and cancer as a way to measure gene expression in individual cells. All of these are completely unexpected applications of the technology.

So perhaps these stories give a sense of the continuous interplay that can happen between pure and applied research. Basic problems inspiring the development of new technologies, whose application in turn opens the door to new basic science. It sometimes happens in a single lab, but the baton is also passed from one lab to another and then back again. The artificial divisions we academics have created between pure and applied disciplines act as friction for this process, and it would behove us to reach across the divide.


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