The Mandelbrot Set is an example of the beauty scientific research can createWolfgang Beyer

In the canon of scientific achievement, many of the most celebrated discoveries are those that were incredibly useful. As a culture we laud Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin and Faraday’s harnessing of electricity, and look back on the polio and smallpox vaccines as some of the scientific community’s greatest achievements.

However, our narrative surrounding the long-standing chef-d’œuves in art and culture is strikingly different. Yes, aestheticians and critics alike sometimes discuss the impacts of artistic pieces and what we as a society or individuals can learn from these creations. On the whole, though, discussions of artistic achievement seem implicitly geared towards the ancient Greek concept of techne, that of artisanship and technical skill for its own sake. Delacroix’s sketches are heralded because they demonstrate his mastery of capturing fluid and lifelike form, not because they’re ‘useful’.

In short, we have an instrumental way of approaching the sciences, and a much more intrinsic appreciation of other fields. We see this reflected at the national level; the UK government plans by 2020 to allocate roughly £1.5 billion of its scientific research budget to the Global Challenges Research Fund, an organisation that implements scientific research in developing countries to address global threats. As Russia grappled with an economic crisis in 2016, one of the things considered most expendable was the space exploration budget, which was quickly slashed by thirty percent. The message is clear: science that is useful at improving lives is valuable; science purely for discovery or knowledge’s sake is not worthwhile.

There are many ways in which we can and should push back against these sorts of judgements. The first is an argument from fairness towards areas of knowledge, and towards people. If academics around in the world are encouraged to publish research in Literature, History, Classics, Philosophy, and many other faculties that have the search for knowledge as a significant guiding principle, it is only fair that academics in STEM subjects be equally respected for pursuing their projects on the same grounds.

Derek Parfit, a British philosopher, also identifies an extremely powerful argument for limiting how decisive “usefulness” as a factor should be in our judgements. Parfit reasoned that if we take usefulness in a given situation as the decisive or only relevant factor in measuring value, we would be forced to accept the following “repugnant conclusion:” a world with two extremely flourishing people who experience, say, ten units of pleasure a day, is equally as valuable as a world with one hundred people who experience a mere 0.2 units of pleasure a day, barely enough to make life worth living. This is because the total pleasure in both worlds adds up to twenty. Clearly, we need other factors, such as knowledge, truth, or beauty to sway the scales in favour of the first scenario, or else the conclusions we would reach would be repugnant, indeed. Apply this to science, and we have an argument for allowing the prioritisation, to an extent, of the search for knowledge for its own sake.


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A case can also be made for the idea that exploration for exploration’s sake is necessary for efficiently ‘useful’ science, which is why we need to keep the former in the picture. In 1977, Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman used number theory to create the complex RSA algorithm. The algorithm uses large composite numbers to encrypt data and became the most common encryption algorithm in the world by the end of the twentieth century. Enormously useful, it contributed to the development of everything from internet browsers to email, spreadsheets, data analysis, word processing, private diplomatic exchanges, and data protection. But 19th-century number-theorist Leonard Dickson once said, “Thank God that number theory is unsullied by any application.” Sometimes the most fruitful advances are born out of areas with untapped uses, where a wealth of abstract and theoretical knowledge has already been established for its own sake.

But this isn’t to say that we should lose sight of endeavours that benefit humanity. Money, time, and human effort are finite resources. When over a billion people live in absolute poverty, surviving on less than a pound a day, it’s fair to say that the UK government, and political powers in general, do an undoubtedly good thing when they make altruistic science a priority.

Science has the power, due to the myriad ways it can be applied to real life and real problems, to develop useful technologies that will propel us into a better future. But usefulness isn’t all we should consider, as clearly proven by the Mandelbrot set in mathematics, which is undeniably beautiful in its very own right

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