Why basic scientific research matters

BY Rebecca Jacobson  January 20, 2014 at 10:18 PM EDT


On the NewsHour Monday, science correspondent Miles O’Brien took a tour of SNOLab, the underground physics laboratory, about 250 miles north of Toronto, that is trying to answer one of the great mysteries of the universe: what is dark matter?

It sounds so simple, but physicists still don’t know what dark matter is — and it makes up 24 percent of the mass in our universe. This story is the first in a new series on the PBS NewsHour that takes a look at basic scientific research and the work that scientists put into understanding how the world around us functions, from tiny microbes to matter in space. The series will capture the excitement of discoveries that come from long hours in the lab.

Basic research has no immediate application; its end results are not a cure for a disease or a new spaceship. But take any invention or convenience of modern living and in its history you will find decades, or even centuries, of basic research leading to its creation. The computer or mobile device on which you are reading this page wouldn’t exist without theoretical work in mathematics that dates back to the 19th century. The iPod was the result of research on lithium-ion batteries, magnetic storage and liquid crystal displays. Research on digestive enzymes eventually led to laundry stain removers and meat tenderizers.

There’s no telling what today’s research on dark matter will yield tomorrow. From the monotony of picking microscopic worms to the joy of an unexpected result, we’ll continue exploring how scientists are seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

This series is funded by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.