I don't know who cheekily wrote the simple question "Why?" on the
whiteboard by my desk at COSI, but the question got me thinking. Why
do we do science? What's the central motivation that keeps us in the
labs after the 100th failed experiment, or hunched over a computer
late at night when the simulation keeps crashing, or out in the
inhospitable field collecting another round of samples?
Do we want to improve technology or make the world a better place?
Some scientists do, I'm sure. But most science isn't done with any
immediate practical benefit in mind. A solid argument can be made that
by investigating nature in an open-ended way, we indirectly end up
with amazing technology as a by-product. For example, the few dozen
physicists working in the early 20th century to unravel the mysterious
quantum nature of the subatomic realm didn't realize that their
insights would lead to the transistor, pantyhose, or the atomic bomb.
But that's not *why* they did it. They did it because it was
interesting. They did it because it was fun to figure things out. They
did it because they had a burning curiosity, and that curiosity led
them down a particular path of inquiry. Most science does not lead to
practical technologies, and we should be careful when employing that
argument, lest the "unessential" sciences get left behind.
So why do we do it? To paraphrase the straightforward words of James
Clerk Maxwell, a pioneer of electromagnetism, we do it simply because
"we cannot put our minds to rest."