Science and Math Don't Have to Be Practical to Be Worthwhile

Even hard scientists and engineers sometimes care more about understanding than real-world applications.
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For better or worse, I spend a fair amount of time hanging out with graduate students in STEM fields, many from elite schools. All the worst things you might suspect about them are (at least partially) true: They're neurotic, privileged, insecure, and narrowly focused on their academic lives. At the same time, though, the best things you might think about them are also generally true: They're hardworking, intelligent, and passionate. They crack jokes whose punch lines require an in-depth knowledge of calculus. They use the acronym "PCR" in casual conversation, as though everybody knows what that means ("polymerase chain reaction," in case you were wondering). This is not to imply that I am particularly cool: Nerdy graduate students are—much as it pains me to admit it—my people. The parties are better than you think.

Very often, I hear some version of the following meme repeated: STEM subjects are practical and earthbound and technically precise, while the humanities are emotive and wistful. It's become something of a cliché. But I think this popular perception is out of sync with what is actually going on in these graduate programs. In discussing the humanities, people take for granted that the objects of inquiry are, to varying degrees, disconnected from reality. They assume that the goal of studying, say, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is to uplift the spirit, discover something about beauty, and enrich one's appreciation of art. With STEM subjects, it's the complete opposite. We assume that people study microbiology to develop vaccines that will save lives, or computer science to design the next #BigData innovation, or mathematics to hone their minds for a lucrative career managing a hedge fund.

These assumptions are partly about the temperaments of the students—about the kinds of people who choose to study, say, chemistry over art history—and, in that respect, they're kind of true. But I don't find this particularly satisfying. The logic is basically circular: It makes just as much sense to say that someone is a pragmatist because he became a chemist as it does to say that he became a chemist because he's a pragmatist.

More fundamentally, these assumptions are about the nature of academic training. People think there is something inherent in chemistry that is reality-driven and therefore socially useful—and, by contrast, something inherent in art history that is introspective and therefore disconnected from society. The idea is that STEM disciplines train people to think more objectively and rigorously, which is somehow related to practicality—in other words, studying covalent bonds is more useful than studying Magritte paintings.   

This is a major oversimplification. Even hard scientists and engineers often care more about understanding for understanding's sake than real-world consequences. And like their friends studying literature and art history, many mathematicians are more interested doing their "art" for its own sake rather than in making big bucks at a hedge fund.

Consider Michael Chen, a second-year graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at MIT. Chen wants to focus his later research on problems that relate to hydraulic fracking, an important topic of discussion among environmentalists. To him, this research represents a welcome, "gritty" departure from the sterility of the laboratory. "It's an environmentally relevant problem," he said. "This is about, 'How does humanity interact with the real world?'"

Now, however, Chen is working on a classic scientific experiment: He's doing research in a lab, trying to solve a theoretical problem in fluid dynamics (an area of physics that deals with how liquids flow). I asked him whether this experiment wasn't less practical than the "gritty" work he wanted to do on hydraulic fracking. But Chen didn't agree that any academic pursuit, no matter how arcane, should be dismissed as impractical. In fact, he made an eloquent argument about the very nature of practicality.      

"People often dismiss something as impractical when they're thinking on the wrong time-scale," he said. "There's stuff in math that I go, 'Why in God's name would anyone ever need to understand that?' Or, the classic example is special relativity. Einstein discovered it, people didn't understand it, and then how many years later was there an atomic bomb? Without these theoretical realizations, we'll never get to new places."

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Benjamin Winterhalter is a writer and journalist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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