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How Black Holes Led to the Creation of Web Browsers

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Credit: XMM-Newton/ESA/NASA

Basic science research has an image problem. People object to spending public money on studies that could never affect them. Lawmakers routinely call out obscure-sounding math, physics and biology research as a waste of taxpayer funds. Now, supporters of fundamental science are fighting back with the Golden Goose awards.

Physicist Larry Smarr was recently named winner of the first 2014 Golden Goose award, which honors U.S. federally funded research that has impacted society, despite seeming to lack practical applications when it was conducted. “We try to educate people about the way that science builds upon itself and goes in unexpected directions,” says Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities, one of the founding organizations of the awards. ”Research that may seem odd or not to have any particular value to society may turn out to have enormous value for reasons that would have been impossible to predict.”

In Smarr’s case, the unpredictable path to enormous value began in the 1980s when he  started researching collisions between black holes. These complex processes required huge computing power to model, so Smarr was an early champion of supercomputers, lobbying the National Science Foundation to establish the first national supercomputing center in an academic setting. He won the competition to direct the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he established a software development group to serve researchers’ needs. Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, two members of that team, designed an early graphical Web browser called Mosaic, which eventually led to the development of Netscape, the first widely popular browser.

This story, Smarr says, is a perfect example of the serendipity involved in translating basic science into societal payoff. “The thing that makes the Golden Goose awards so important is that they don’t try to simplify the story. They say, actually, it’s a pretty convoluted path,” he says. “Sometimes people talk about wanting to manage basic research and make sure there’s a practical application. The Golden Goose awards are saying you can’t do that.”

Smarr says he had never heard of the awards until he won one. Now a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego, he will join a handful of other winners of this year’s awards, to be announced throughout the year. The prizes are sponsored by a number of scientific organizations, and winners receive trophies in September at an event in Washington, D.C.

The Golden Goose awards were named to contrast with the Golden Fleece awards, which the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin  used to give out to lambaste what he considered wasteful spending. Although the awards garnered attention, they often backfired. . One famous example was a USDA-funded study by Edward F. Knipling on the sex life of the screwworm, which turned out to be a deadly parasite of cattle. Using the research to eliminate screwworms from livestock in the southern U.S. ended up saving the cattle industry around $20 billion dollars, leading Proxmire to apologize to Knipling for deriding his work.

Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee conceived of the Golden Goose awards, which were first given out in 2012, to educate other lawmakers and the public. Toiv says he hopes they serve to influence funding debates in Congress. “As the United States investment in basic research flattens or even declines, other countries are starting to pour more and more resources into it,” Toiv says. “That is a real concern, and we try to make the case that the nation’s investment in basic research is critical to long-term economic growth.”

Fundamental research, even the most esoteric, bizarre-sounding studies, can do more than just satisfy our curiosity. “If you were a farmer, you wouldn’t eat your seeds.” Smarr says. “You’ve got to plant your seeds. Basic research is really the seed core of innovation.”

Clara Moskowitz About the Author: Clara Moskowitz is Scientific American's associate editor covering space and physics. Follow on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. curiouswavefunction 10:15 am 02/25/2014

    Smarr’s story is nicely told in Pedro Ferreira’s recent book “The Perfect Theory” which I reviewed a few days ago.

    http://tinyurl.com/pomks3z

    Link to this
  2. 2. RayCL 2:40 pm 02/25/2014

    And I recall that, possibly mythical, the inventor of the LASER thought it was a curiosity, and didn’t see what it could be used for. Even the transistor, invented purposefully, cannot possibly have been seen to introduce the world of microelectronics that we have become so accustomed to.

    Link to this

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