Field of Science

Important or interesting; what is more important?

In the last decade or so I have sat through my fair share of talks and interviews by Nobel laureates and other famous scientists. Typically when students in the audience ask these men and women what formula they should follow for making great discoveries, the usual answer is that there is no one formula, but if anything, people who want to do science at the cutting edge should work on important problems. One of the practical reasons for this piece of advice is that science being a generally difficult endeavor, you are probably going to spend a lot of time on both unimportant and important problems, so you might as well tackle the important ones.

I think the point is well-taken but its value has also been exaggerated. First of all, in science, you don't always
know what's important. You may think that neuroscience is the hottest field of this century but you still don't know exactly what lines of research would lead to important discoveries in it. However, my greater objection to this constant emphasis on importance is that it detracts from what really drives scientists- the fact that scientific problems are interesting. We do science not because it may lead to some important discoveries or even a greater understanding of the universe (which it inevitably does) but because scientific conundrums tickle our brains cells like no other, they excite our imagination, the logic inherent in them sparks our curiosity and fuels our hunger to know more. The real driving force of science, in Richard Feynman's words, is the pleasure of finding things out. These things may or may not turn out to be important, but what really matters is whether they are interesting.

Sure, keeping the big picture in mind and not doing derivative work does make sense. But sometimes even relatively trivial problems can be interesting in their own right and an obsessive focus on importance may lead us to simply ignore more modest problems even if they are very interesting. Examples of such problems can be found in any scientific journal. Pick up the latest issue of even a top journal like JACS and you would be hard-pressed to judge the true importance of 90% of the papers. Is the latest discussion of entropy in drug binding, intricacies of solar cell design or the most recent breakthrough in organocatalysis going to truly lead to something important? Who knows. But what we do know is that at least some of them are interesting; maybe the organocatalysis reaction has an interesting mechanism, maybe the drug binding displays entropy-enthalpy compensation, maybe the solar cell material exhibits an unusual crystal structure. Most importantly, all these things are not just interesting but they are
fun to discover.

The last word again belongs to Feynman. After the war, when he was a young assistant professor at Cornell, Feynman thought that he had burnt out, that the war had sapped his best years and that he had nothing left to contribute to science. Then one day during lunch in the cafeteria, he watched someone throw a dinner plate up for fun. The thing wobbled and Feynman noticed that there was an interesting relationship between motion at the edge of the plate and its center. Intrigued, he spent the next few hours working out the relationship from first principles. He went to the great physicist Hans Bethe's office and showed him the calculation. Bethe asked him what the importance of the observation was. Feynman cheerfully told Bethe that the calculation had no importance whatsoever, he just had such a bloody good time doing it.

That's the main reason why all those Nobel prize winners also did science and what they should emphasize more. And that's why we should do it too. Not because someone someday may use what we do - although that is a laudable goal- but because finding out how the world works delivers such a neat little intellectual kick to our mental apparatus. Interesting is just so much more important than important.

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