Barbell Science

Some weeks ago it was reported that, supposedly, there was a major break through on cancer treatment, and it came from University of S. Paulo, in Brazil.

And that got me thinking, science is like a risky investment — you’re mainly losing, but eventually there’s a win that is so huge that it changes history.

Of course, leaving aside for a moment the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge for its own sake and so on.

All that is good and noble, but it’s beside the point. My point here is, why should a society pay someone to do theoretical research. (Yes, I know that for some schools of thought this very sentence is problematic; but indulge me a bit. If you like, think of society as a fund or something, and sometimes it invests in weird stuff like healthcare and roads).

And I believe the answer is what I said above: investment in science is like a barbell investment. The most famous example, I believe, is the one given by Carl Sagan in his book, The Demon-Haunted World, viz., electromagnetism.

Back in the day, electromagnetism was something very theoretical. No applications were foreseeable. Then, heat machines were all the rage. And bigger, stronger cannons. Electromagnetism, the theory that changed radically how we live today, was a pursuit only a little better than the study of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

And one cannot really know what science investment will be a win. So the fund manager can’t really direct his investment to this or that project. All the dumb money will do that. Instead, he’ll have to allocate it in a somewhat random fashion (of course, to the most capable people).