Of What Use?
Today, scientists have a problem when people demand their work to have a "practical use", but they realize that this problem is not new. They recall a story about a student who asked the Greek philosopher Plato of what use was the abstract mathematics he was being taught. Plato at once ordered a slave to give the student a small coin so that he would not think he had gained knowledge for nothing. Then he dismissed the student from the school.
This story of Plato, famous for two thousand years, has not made the matter more evident to most people. Unless the importance of a discovery is clear, most doubts its value.
There is a story about the English scientist Michael Faraday that illustrates this. He was, in this time, a popular lecturer as well as a physicist and chemist. In one of his lectures, he demonstrated the strange behavior of a magnet and a spiral coin of wire which was connected to a galvanometer. A galvanometer records the presence of an electric current.
There was no current in the beginning, but when the magnet was put inside the coil, the galvanometer showed current. While the magnet was moving in or out of the coil, current flowed and the needle on the galvanometer moved.
When the magnet was motionless, the galvanometer showed no current.
At the conclusion of the lecture, one listener approached Faraday and said, "Mr. Faraday, the behavior of the magnet and the coil of wire was interesting, but what possible use can it be?"
And Faraday answered politely, "Sir, of what use is a newborn baby?"
In later years, Faraday made use of his effect to develop electricity cheaply and in quantity, generators make it possible to build the electrified technology that surrounds us. Faraday's demonstration was a newborn baby that grew into a giant.
Astronauts have brought rocks back from the moon. So what? Scientists develop new theories, new mathematical complexities. What for? Of what use are they to the average man and woman?
No one knows right now, any more than Plato or Faraday knew. But you will know, if you live long enough. If not, your children or grandchildren will know. They will be able to answer the question, "Of what use...?"
Adapted from "The Beginning and the End", by Isaac Asinov
1. Plato: Platon
2. Coin: a piece of metal money
3. To dismiss: to send away forever
4. Lecture: an informative talk
5. Behavior: action, activity
6. Magnet: a piece of metal which attracts iron
7. Coil: "rouleau"
8. Needle: "aiguille"
1. What old problem do scientists have?
2. Why did Plato send the student away?
3. Do you think that the demonstration of Faraday was strange. Explain. How was it like a newborn baby?
4. Does the author, Mr. Asinov, believe that scientific knowledge is useful or useless? (Use example from the text.)