One of the best things about being a grad student is the weekly ritual that is department seminar. We gather together in a room or auditorium, hang out, drink coffee, and eat cookies. Oh, and someone usually talks about something science related. In seminar each week I get the chance to broaden my horizons and learn something new. I hear about research in areas far outside my work. Sometimes it doesn’t really spark my interest, and that’s ok, other times I leave impressed by a colleague’s work, eager to learn more. Last Friday, just before Thanksgiving, here at UMass we had the opportunity to have Nate Morehouse from the University of Cincinnati come tell us about his amazing work on jumping spiders.
Jumping spiders have a total of eight eyes, like all spiders, but, they have two pair of forward facing eyes that set them apart. One pair of lateral secondary eyes sense shape and movement in a large field of view, while a set of telescopic principle eyes provide extremely acute, binocular, color vision. The combination of these two sets of eyes give jumping spiders sharp eyesight that would make Peter Parker jealous!
Hang on though, it gets even cooler!! These teeny little spiders don’t only use their Ted Williams-esque vision to stalk ants in your backyard, some species use complex visual behaviors and colors to attract mates, a.k.a, they dance! Morehouse and his lab have been trying to figure out what aspects of the male jumping spider’s dance off are most important to the girls, and how the spiders interpret the barrage of movement and color. To do this they have focused cameras on the spider that literally track where animal’s retinas are focusing while watching a filmed dance. By changing things like the colorscheme, or the order of dance moves, the lab has been able to see what draws the female’s attention, and what doesn’t, ultimately providing clues as to how and why this complex behavior and excellent vision may have evolved.
Now at this point I know what you are probably thinking – who cares how color vision evolved in some spider no one has ever even heard of? Well, you might have a point there. We could probably find all the people in the U.S. that really care about the answer to that question and fit them into one party bus (it’d be a pretty awesome bus, though). This type of research is what people often refer to as “basic science”, research that doesn’t have a specific application or utility for the general public. Scientists often have a hard time justifying basic scientific research to the general public, who argue there is no point wasting time or money on research that isn’t going to help anyone, or accomplish anything. So it begs the question, what is this kind of basic science good for?
Basic research leads to applied research
Applied research, unlike basic research, has a specific end in mind, typically for practical application outside of academia. Think ecological research to restore abandoned mines in Appalachia, pharmaceutical research advancing medical science, or physicists and engineers building rockets to launch weather satellites into space. These are all extremely important fields of research, but, where would they be without the foundation laid by prior basic research. An ecologist is only able to evaluate ecosystem health because of others who have meticulously tracked ecosystem processes in general, new gene based pharmaceuticals wouldn’t exist were it not for the curiosity of Rosalind Franklin (oh yeah … and Watson and Crick), and the physicist would be lost without the mathematical foundations laid by the likes of Newton who thought of himself as “a child wandering upon the vast shores of knowledge.”
Curiosity and exploration make us who we are
Basic research is needed because we have no idea what vital discovery may lay around the next corner, and because this basic research ultimately leads to the practical and applied research of the future. But, in the end, does research borne of curiosity ultimately need to be justified? As humans we seem hard wired for curiosity, babies are keen observers soaking in their surroundings, four year olds are always asking why? To be curious is to be human!
As my friend and fellow grad student Joe Drake said; what happens if we replace basic science with basic art, does art need to be justified? Does every piece of music, every painting, every novel need a practical application? No! The value of art is inherent in its nature we don’t always need to justify art because we appreciate the beauty itself. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted because the Chapel’s ceiling was in need of a fresh coat, was it? To be curious, to ask questions, to dig deep into the inner workings of our universe is part of what it means to be human! We should value basic research exploring the inner workings of the universe in the same way that we value the artwork of Da Vinci, Brahms, or Shakespeare. Check out Joe's post on science as art on his blog.
Finally, for the Christians among us, we have an even stronger reason to value basic science – the more we know and understand Creation, the more we can know and understand the Creator. God has revealed himself through his creation in a way that is different from his revelation in the Scriptures. When I observe the extraordinary intricacy of a forest ecosystem, or the incredible complexity of a minute insect I am awed at the intricacy and complexity of God!
So go, be curious for curiosity’s sake! Be Human!
Read more of Joe Drake on his blog - Secret Life of a Field Biologist