In recognition of International Dark Matter Day, EQUS Associate Investigator Dr Ben McAllister wrote about the importance of fundamental research for ABC Religion & Ethics. The following is an excerpt of the full article, available at https://www.abc.net.au/religion/why-dark-matter-matters-ben-mcallister/14095220.
Throughout history, fundamental research has led to the acquisition of new knowledge and the discovery of new technologies that have changed our world. Most often it is research undertaken without specific, well-defined, short-term outcomes in mind that has led to enormous advancements for civilization.
Most modern technology relies fundamentally on our understanding of something called “quantum mechanics”, which is the field of physics that aims to describe the behaviour of the Universe on very small length scales. The Universe is strange on those scales, and the way things behave is often contrary to our intuition. Scientists began discovering this strange behaviour in the twentieth century, and it sparked a revolution in physics — a revolution which continues to this day.
Advances in quantum mechanics afforded us a deeper insight into the microscopic world, and eventually allowed us to engineer materials like semiconductors, which underpin all modern computing. Computing is just one example of the way quantum mechanics enables the technology of the modern world.
Here’s the point: the early quantum scientists were probably not thinking “this research will one day lead to a thing called a semiconductor, which will one day go inside a thing called a computer”. They didn’t know what they were going to find, or specifically what would come of it — it wasn’t like there was a clear, well-lit path from the strange behaviour of quantum mechanics to the modern computing revolution. The scientists were asking fundamental physics questions; they were trying to understand the phenomena they were seeing, and trying to explain how the Universe works.