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The Beauty and Benefits of Science

The theme points to the “unreasonable effectiveness” of the scientific enterprise in creating economic growth, solving societal problems, and satisfying the essential human drive to understand the world in which we live.

That phrase, “unreasonable effectiveness,” was coined in 1960 by physicist Eugene Wigner, whose memorable essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” explored the duality of mathematics—both beautiful unto itself, and also eminently practical, often in unexpected ways.

The same duality exists in all fields of science. Basic research can be seen as a quest to understand the beauty that underlies our universe and the myriad phenomena that it contains. Einstein's theory of general relativity describes the cosmological evolution of the universe; those features not explained by it may ultimately be understood as consequences of string theory or its generalizations. Darwin's law of natural selection is a principle so powerful that, let loose on the unimaginable richness of carbon-based chemistry (RNA not least), it explains the origin and subsequent wild diversity of evolving life.

At the same time, in virtually every field of science, fundamental research can blossom into applicable research that accomplishes useful, practical goals and creates better lives. In Wigner's time, it was possible to believe in a “linear model,” where pure, curiosity-driven research “led to” applied research, which in turn “led to” the development of products by industry.

We now appreciate the reality of a much richer set of connections. Fundamental scientific understanding creates whole landscapes on which practical applications may flourish. Basic research may create territories that, only later, become the real estate for new industries, as quantum mechanics and solid-state physics have provided the platform for the semiconductor, computer, and Internet industries. There can also be leaps from basic research to application in a seemingly single bound, such as from number theory to practical encryption, or page rank algorithm to Google.

Equally important are the cases where the “pull” of environmental or societal problems drives fundamentally new basic research. Recognition of a warming planet continues to drive our need for deeper understanding of climate science, of complex ecological webs, of basic plant biology, and much else.

The program of the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting thus highlights the rich and complicated connections between basic and applied research, and how they bring about both practical benefits and the beauty of pure understanding.