Associate Professor Susan Krumdieck from the University of Canterbury talks about how research for something that might not ever happen is still good for society. Trying to solve a nearly impossible question such as “If you could go at Mach 10, what materials would you need?” pushes scientists to develop skills, understanding and technology to new levels.
I’ve been asked about the term I’ve been using – ‘What if?’ science – and I came up with that because people kept asking me, “Well, when are they going to build this craft?” and I started thinking, well yeah, maybe we don’t think about science in a ‘What if?’ way any more, that we do expect technologies to just pop up, you know. But that is not really the way it works in something like this where, you know, this may never actually get built. But how are you going to work on finding out about how materials behave at very high temperatures and under chemical attack if you don’t try to figure that out?
So ‘What if?’ science is a way to set up a question that then drives science to answer it. And this is a really good thing to do if you have a nearly impossible question to answer. You know, what if you could go Mach 10? Pretty much we’re nearly sure that’s impossible, but what if you could? What sort of materials, what sort of structures would you need? And that then pushes your brightest scientists and engineers to work on things that are really hard. And if you have people who do that, then you have people who understand that kind of, that kind of science. And I think, on the whole, people might agree that that is a good thing to keep some group of people in your culture asking questions and trying to figure out something that we don’t now know.
What is the value in just trying to find out stuff you don’t know? I mean, in the United States, they obviously have enough extra money to go exploring strange things, and at the same time, they have got a lot of hungry people and people without healthcare. So we were talking about this big question of is the investment in ‘What if? science actually good for society? And you know, my own opinion is what I’m going to have to give here – there isn’t a consensus exactly.
I think there is two things. Any time that you have the capability of people in your society to work at a very high scientific level, then that makes you a different country than a country who doesn’t. And those people and that training does trickle down, because where are those people? They are at universities, and they are teaching the next group of engineers and scientists that come through. So actually having the institutions where you’re keeping your cleverest and most curious people busy, you know, feeding their curiosity through research and they do make new discoveries, and that, you know, feeds on down to new students.
So if you have people who understand really what can be done and they are working on problems that we don’t yet have solutions to and they have access to the knowledge and the curiosity of a whole bunch of other people, that just is a high society. It’s a society that thinks, that learns, that watches, that explores, and that’s different from a society that doesn’t.
National Hypersonic Science Centre for Materials & Structures