Friday, 22 October 2010


At a hospital today – seeing someone in the Supplies department, I hasten to add: there’s nothing wrong with me, or at least nothing that can be treated by medicine – I was directed to the ‘Old Nurses Home’. This has happened in a few hospitals I’ve visited, where I’ve met management people in an Old Nurses Home.

It worries me. I mean, if Finance or Supplies are taking these places over, where do the Old Nurses live?

On the train on the way home, there was a Jewish couple across the aisle from me. Now we Jews like to have extraordinarily large extended families. Second cousins twice removed are important people to whom we have to communicate good news, to collect their good wishes and, to be honest, excite their envy.

I guess in the natural course of things I’d have had a family like that, living in and around Vilnius, but Hitler made sure that didn’t happen. This couple, on the other, were clearly well endowed with relatives. Because for the full two hours of the trip – which they made me feel was a lot longer – they were phoning every single one of them to announce that ‘Jonah proposed to Lindsey today – yes, yes, in Marrakesh – no date yet, depends on when we can get the rabbi – hold on, I’ll pass you Rachel, she wants to talk to you too.’ And Rachel started her conversation with the same words every time ‘Yes, we’re so excited…’

Mazel tov, I say to them. At least they had some real joy to spread, not random noise like those guys in cars who want to share their music with you while you’re waiting for traffic lights to go green. Even so, I’d like to tell the couple with the happy news from Marrakesh, ‘when your other son pops the question, would you mind making the calls from home before you catch the train, rather than from the middle of a crowded carriage?’

To try to get a break from the monotony, I listened to a podcast of one of my favourite BBC radio programmes, In our time. One of the learned university researchers said of a major figure that she was discussing, ‘he was the theoretician of the movement, if it had a theoretician.’

Don’t you just love academics? Let’s assume for a moment that this movement didn’t have a theoretician. In that case, what would this guy have been?

I’m very fond of academic research. It seems to be that getting to understand things better is one of the most vital of human functions. Now Mrs Thatcher is in hospital at the moment, and this is leading to a lot of talk about her, including some slightly ghoulish speculation – for someone not yet dead – about whether she should have a state funeral or not.

When she became Prime Minister, she was asked by a journalist how she felt about being the first woman to hold that post in this country. She replied that she preferred to think of herself as the first scientist. It’s true that when she was a chemist she’d done some seminal work on the surface tension of soft ice cream. This made it all the more surprising to me when she revealed herself to be research-averse, cutting funds to many academic institutions and setting as her goal to finance only research that was ‘useful’.

The trouble with this attitude is that usefulness is difficult to define when it comes to research. I once worked for a man who’d previously spent three years on an international collaboration involving dozens of scientists, working on the colossally expensive equipment at the European Nuclear Research Centre outside Geneva. They were looking for the intermediate vector boson. I have no idea what one of these is, but I’m prepared to accept the word of physicists who tell me it’s terribly important. Anyway, it seems my boss’s collaboration failed because they were looking in the wrong energy range, whatever that means.

So was his research a complete waste of time and money? Well, someone had to establish that it was the wrong energy range so that scientists could feel free to look at others. A negative result may be a crucial contribution on the way to a positive outcome. That’s what people who apply a narrow definition of utility seem unable to realise.

That reminds of an exchange that took place at one of the public displays of electricity Faraday used to give in the late nineteenth century. Someone in the audience asked ‘Yes, but what use is it?’ Priceless, isn’t it? From our vantage point of today, what could be more risible than someone questioning the usefulness of electricity? But until you’ve found out what the use is, how can you possibly know?

That’s what lay behind Faraday’s answer: ‘What use is a baby?’ A baby may turn into a Faraday, or he may turn into a neo-Thatcherite of the kind running our government today with its renewed onslaught on academic institutions. A baby is a chance you take, hoping it’ll turn out OK, but with no certainty that it will.

Anyway, Louis Pasteur got it right. ‘There’s no such thing as applied research, only applications of fundamental research.’ Do the fundamental research, and we’ll find the applications in due course.

Otherwise we might as well go and sit with the homeless Old Nurses and tell sad tales of random matters, such as people who are shining examples of discretion in the use of mobile phones, if such people had discretion.

No comments: