Blue sky research is vital - professor

2012-01-16 14:01

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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  • Merkwaardig - 2012-01-16 16:33

    I always find it amazing that in an epoch where we pick the commercial and social benefits of computers, molecular medicine, super-strong and safe materials, optic fibre data transmission, etc. etc., we forget the free, enquiring environment within which the discovery of the fundumentals underlying all these applications were made. Our current society will simply not have been possible without the freedom that allowed these discoveries. Are we thinking of the next 100 years? It is only with freedom in scienctific enquiry that the truly amazing discoveries are likely.

  • seymore.butt - 2012-01-17 06:24

    For South Africans to do BLUE sky research, they need to get their head out of BLACK and WHITE. Any article with slightest of racial undertone receives 100s of comments where as here, the one about EDUCATION, has one comment. Goes to show what's on the South Africans minds! You need a free mind to do blue sky research.

      Hallo - 2012-01-18 14:58

      No actually its the minority degenerates of all races that go on about it.

  • TheSlip - 2012-01-17 09:46

    Research involving current issues should always take precedence over satisfying someone's curiosity. Being a scientist, I know how much research costs, how much is wasted on silly projects and it would be more prudent to invest in current affairs than to gamble with public funds. This is a one-sided story and about securing tenure. List the stats, if you will of what DIDN'T happen with Blue Sky science. Claiming that BSS (ha!) is the reason for inventions like the WWW, is a little far fetched. Just because it happened there, doesn't mean it wouldn't have been discovered elsewhere. Nor does it mean it wouldn't have been better.

      John - 2012-01-18 17:43

      I believe the WWW network was an offshoot of the US military communications network called "Intranet" where many stations could be connected on a real time basis to pass information.

  • Why - 2012-01-18 15:25

    Just Amazing

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