Plaisanteries de scientifiques

ITHACA, NEW YORK – Les collègues de Sir Joseph Thomson de l’université de Cambridge, à l’annonce de sa découverte de l’électron en 1897, lui auraient porté ce toast: “A l’électron! Puisse-t-il à jamais être inutile!” Cette improbable légende revient de temps en temps sur le tapis entre physiciens, et les spécialistes de mathématique pure font plus ou moins la même boutade à propos de leur discipline.

Comment se fait-il que l’on trouve spirituel de dénigrer l’utilité de la science? J’ai retrouvé cette attitude chez un cosmologue, invité comme moi à participer il y a quelques années à une émission de radio: l’animateur lui objectait que ses recherches “n’avaient, pour ainsi dire, aucune application pratique,” et lui, du tac au tac, a répondu: “c’est une chose dont je suis fier, oui.”

La connaissance, surtout scientifique, est en général considérée comme utile. C’est justement ce sur quoi ces bons mots semblent faire fond. Quand un scientifique – physicien, mathématicien ou cosmologue – prétend que sa discipline est inutile, cela prête à sourire.

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