Joking about Science

An apocryphal story sometimes heard among physicists concerns a toast, proposed by his Cambridge University colleagues, to J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron in 1897: “To the electron: may it never be of use to anyone!” That joke reflects a serious conundrum: should science be judged by its usefulness, or by its success at increasing our understanding of nature?

ITHACA, NEW YORK – An apocryphal story sometimes heard among physicists concerns a toast, proposed by his Cambridge University colleagues, to J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron in 1897: “To the electron: may it never be of use to anyone!” Pure mathematicians supposedly tell a similar joke about their profession.

Why should it be considered witty to celebrate the uselessness of knowledge? I witnessed a similar attitude from a cosmologist when I participated in a radio show a few years ago: the host remarked to him that his research “has virtually no practical applicability,” to which he quickly replied, “I’m proud of that, yes.”

These jokes all seem to rely on the same assumption: everyone thinks that knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, should be useful. So it’s funny to boast that one’s own brand of knowledge, whether experimental physics, mathematics, or cosmology, is useless.

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