Joking about Science

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.

But the joke wouldn’t work if there were not at the same time another widely shared assumption that scientific knowledge has a value independent of any practical use. After all, it would not be funny if a charity dedicated to famine relief celebrated its own ineffectiveness; practical value in that case would be paramount, because it would be the only real reason for the charity to exist.