There has been a lot of commentary in the media lately about the value of fundamental science. The current government of Canada has suggested that the federal funding agencies should shift their focus toward applied science and engineering and research that benefits the business community, and reduce the funding for pure science. Of course there has been a lot written already about the short sightedness of this edict, (and I certainly have my own bias being trained as a theoretical physicist myself) however here are a few more historical facts to consider.

In the 1850s, Gauss and Riemann developed theories and proofs regarding non-Euclidean geometry (ie geometry in curved space, rather than flat space) which were 100% pure mathematics with no observable practical applications. By 1915 Einstein had used their theories to develop the general theory of relativity, which also was purely academic with no forseeable practical applications. However in the modern era, ever GPS unit in every vehicle and every smart phone relies on the these abstract branches of mathematics and physics to determine locations. Every space probe relies on these equations to accurately reach their destinations. And when humanity ventures to the other planets and beyond the solar system, it will be a result of the equations of general relativity.

Consider next the theory of quantum mechanics. In 1901, Max Planck was studying the thermal emissions from a heated object, which was known to disagree with theory, and proposed that energy comes in discrete packets called quanta. It was really not practical research in any way, but it was interesting. Four years later Einstein used this idea to explain the photoelectric effect, also of no practical use at the time. By the 1920s and 1930s, a few theorists were developing the theory of quantum mechanics with no real idea how it could be useful in everyday life. But then in the 1950s their abstract ideas led to the invention of the transistor, which was a required step to develop computers and all of modern electronics. Other purely theoretical work on stimulated emission of radiation resulted later in the laser, which has been used in numerous applications in modern life. Even Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect resulted decades later in photocells, motion detectors, and digital cameras.

Such examples could continue ad infinitum. When Maxwell, Faraday, Volta, and Ampere were developing electromagnetic, they couldn't anticipate where electronics and wireless communications would be now. After the Curies and others developed theories on radiation, it took many years to lead to X-ray imaging and radiation therapies for cancer treatment. A lot of theoretical and experimental work was done on nuclei and nuclear theories fully fifty years before the first MRI machines were developed. A similar span of time was required for the prediction of the positron to develop into modern medical PET scanners. There are countless examples.

The bottom line though is that there is no research so theoretical or so abstract that it won't someday lead to a practical application. And without an investment in fundamental research, the applications will never be discovered. And the world will be undeniably poorer for it.