According to some, the Australian Research Council (ARC) is funding some pretty obscure projects. These critics would have scientists pitch research grant proposals to regulars at your local watering hole instead, as a better litmus test for where the government should be spending its money.
However, while scientists absolutely benefit from engaging with the community and receiving public support, not all research is easily translatable to predictable outcomes for the public.
Immensely useful things are not always created or discovered thanks to carefully mapped-out plans, but rather occur as happy accidents while scientists are busy trying to understand something just for the sake of it, not knowing what applications it might lead to.
This highly important work is known as ‘blue skies’ or ‘basic research’, and to demonstrate its value, here are five scientific discoveries we use every day that definitely would not have passed the ‘pub test’, because scientists themselves didn’t yet know the full implications of their work.
Einstein had already predicted the ability to create concentrated beams of light at a higher energy by firing photons at atoms in an excited state in 1917, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the pursuit of knowledge and the desire to end the debate of how it could actually be done led scientists to making lasers a physical reality.
Little did they realise that since the first iteration of a laser in 1960, they would become an integral part of 21st century life. From optical fibre-based communication, supermarket checkout scanners and relatively painless surgeries to industrial-scale manipulation of metals and alloys, lasers are truly the serendipitous scientific gift that keeps on giving.
Contrary to popular opinion, the World Wide Web is not a series of tubes, but an information-sharing network made possible by electronic computers and modern telecommunication. Lasers are involved, too.
Initially developed by CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) scientist Tim Berners-Lee as a way to instantly share information between research organisations across the world, this one piece of science-oriented technology has since completely transformed the world as we know it, from communication to jobs, education, social movements and beyond. (We also use it to instantly share whatever cute face the cat just pulled because The World. Must. Know.)
Back in the day, if you had the bad luck to get an infected wound, no matter how minor, your chances of survival were pretty slim. In 1927, when microbiologist Alexander Fleming returned from a vacation, he discovered he’d left behind some agar plates covered with the Staphylococcus bacteria. One of the plates was also growing a particular strain of mould along with the bacteria, but interestingly, the mould possessed a halo where no bacteria had grown. Thus, by accident messing up his scientific work, Fleming discovered the first antibiotic compound, penicillin.
Countless lives have been saved by penicillin and its derivatives since then. Now the worst thing that a nasty cut can give you is a scar (unless you’re unlucky enough to contract an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria), but hey, they have lasers for that too.
Microwaves are a form of short wavelength, very high frequency radio waves and can be created by a complicated piece of equipment that was probably named by a comic-book nerd: the magnetron. It was developed in the 1920s and used by planes and submarines for radar navigation, but when an engineer working on ways to intensify microwaves walked past a working magnetron, he noticed that it melted a candy bar he’d stashed in his pocket for later. Thus the microwave oven was born, but not before he also used his military grade magnetron to explode an egg and make popcorn. Scientists do love their snacks!
CRISPR gene editing
The current darling of the molecular biology world, the CRISPR system of targeted gene editing is like several years’ worth of Christmas presents coming early, and scientists are still figuring out everything the new toy can achieve. But Spanish microbiologist Francisco Mojica, who contributed to its groundwork, wasn’t looking for this tool. His research project concerned how varying salt concentrations affected DNA sequences of certain salt-loving micro-organisms.
Mojica noticed that bacteria were using short repeat sequences of DNA to keep track of and neutralise other organisms such as viruses that infected it, as a rudimentary immune system. It is this system that has since been co-opted over the years by other ingenious researchers to direct changes to any DNA sequence desired, the most powerful tool in our genetic manipulation toolbox yet, of which gene editing is only the start.