A few weeks ago I heard the TED radio hour with NPR’s Guy Raz. The speaker was MIT’s Physicist Allan Adams. I heard an enthused and sincere-sounding speaker making (what I found to be) outlandish statements on the importance of gravitational waves. Here is an excerpt of the transcript (underlines are mine to emphasize what I found to be quite astonishing):
RAZ: You know what, Allan? Some people hear gravitational waves, and they’re like, you know – you know, like, what’s the big deal? Because it’s – it doesn’t feel real to all of us, right? So what does this even tell us about where we come from or where we’re going?
ADAMS: Oh, my God, it tells you all of the most important things in the world. So to start it tells you where the universe is going. It’s going to expand and expand and expand and get really cold and lonely and big and empty. Yeah, that’s really horrible. It also tells you that that’s not going to happen for an extraordinarily long time. So don’t worry about it too much. That’s a good thing. It tells you that everything around you came from a big bang and then stars cooking up lots of stuff, like carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and all the things that make up the food you eat, except for all the metals and the trace stuff, which came from the collision of two neutron stars, which is completely insane because think about this – where you came from is not Iowa.
Where you came from is a star exploding, creating all sorts of elements, having them collapse back into another star. And then it explodes, and it creates more elements, and they fall into another star, but this one turned into a neutron star – turned into a big lump of nothing but neutrons – collided with another one and shot out a huge set of waves. And that is absolutely staggeringly cool. How can we ask why is this important? What else could possibly be more important than understanding where we come from?
RAZ: Yeah. You’re really intense – phew.
RAZ: I get it, though. I’m pretty blown away, too.
ADAMS: Good. It is freaking amazing.
What scientific research could be more important? I think there is an argument for foundational questions in practically every discipline of science or the humanities. Because (or so I believe) each of us came from our own Iowa much more than from the stars and are influenced much more by (in no particular order) the medical, social, political, economic, educational, artistic, cultural, environmental and technological aspects of our world.
What do you think? Is this just a fair exaggeration in the cause of promoting basic science (a cause I hold dearly)? Is it not even an exaggeration at all (I’m guessing my father for example would say it is not)? Please share your opinion in comments.