Blue sky research is vital - professor

2012-01-16 14:01
Dr David Wolfe has urged continued investment in blue sky research. (Daniel Calderwood, News24)

Dr David Wolfe has urged continued investment in blue sky research. (Daniel Calderwood, News24)

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Cape Town - Research that has no targeted goal is fundamental to progress, despite the enormous cost sometimes associated with it, a physicist has said.

"We have to do blue sky research. The pressure is so much to do targeted research which I agree we have to do, but we have to do some blue sky research and that's what universities are for," Dr David Wolfe told News24.

Wolfe is an emeritus professor of the University of New Mexico, and a visiting lecturer at the UCT physics department where he is giving a summer school on the Large Hadron Collider and The Physics of Elementary Particles.

He said that without universities, progress in technology would be limited.

"The transistor was invented at Bell Labs, a commercial laboratory. It's out of business; they don't do that anymore. Who's to do this kind of thinking that led to the transistor?"


He rejected a notion that cost of projects did not justify the expense at a time when there was economic pressure.

He said that the cost of research may be offset by huge benefits that many accrue through new technology.

"It cost $5bn. The last time we built a machine at Cern [European Organisation for Nuclear Research], this funny thing came out of it, called the World Wide Web. I think that's worth a bit more to the economy than $5bn.

"It began to be developed right about the time I was there. Because there was a pretty young woman in the computer group, I used to go to coffee with these people all the time and we were talking about ways to distribute information to all these labs that were far away.

"And what I regret is that it's www. for world wide web and it should be hep. for high energy physics because that's where it came from,"

Wolfe said that education was vitally important in South Africa to ensure that the country developed the best minds to solve global problems.

"The benefits of education are there even if you don't have the degree. Even if you don't finish, the idea that you had to think and use your brain makes you not a robot and not an automaton, but a citizen and that matters."


South Africa hopes to be the host nation for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which will consist of thousands of linked radio telescopes that astronomers hope will solve riddles of the universe.

"I think that will be a wonderful thing to have. What that will do is bring a lot of very talented people here.

"I know, in the United States, Canada and in the UK, quite a number of physicists from South Africa. I had no idea they were from South Africa, they're long gone and they're lost and that's a sin," Wolfe said.

A decision on the SKA is expected in February and the estimated cost of the instrument is around €1.5bn which will largely come from international investors.

SA has already built seven linked radio telescopes in the Northern Cape province which function as a test bed for technology to drive development of the SKA.

Wolfe said that one could not predict what tangible results the research might yield.

"There's a wonderful quote I'm going to start my lectures with: 'It's very hard to make predictions, particularly about the future.'"

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