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.

Black Hills State University/AP Photo

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."

Erin Green, a Ph.D. student in molecular microbiology at Tufts University Medical School, has spent a fair amount of time reflecting on the meaning of her scientific work. She has strong opinions about practicality in scientific work, which depends on the distinction between "translational research," geared toward developing applications, and "basic research," geared toward understanding the world for its own sake, she said.

The general direction of scientific research is largely determined by funding—grants from the National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation, mostly, she said. These grants are often earmarked for translational research. The National Institutes of Health, for example, is mostly interested in using science to find new ways to cure disease. Clearly, this is important, but the resulting funding schemes can derail scientific developments.

For instance, Green said, for many years, there was little funding available for research on "biofilms," which is basically bacterial slime. ("It's the plaque on your teeth, the gunk in a pipe, the rind on your cheese," she explained.) "There was no apparent translational application, so it went underfunded and understudied for years," Green said. It turned out, however, that understanding the development of biofilms was enormously important in understanding the microbial roots of infectious disease. "We're now playing catch-up," Green said. "There are certain basic aspects of biology that you have to understand in order to treat infections."

The lesson seems pretty clear: If you guide the flow of money based on current needs, you'll miss deeper truths that you'll later find yourself wishing you had understood.

This can also be true in other fields. Nathan Pflueger, a Ph.D. student in the Harvard mathematics department, is something of a math prodigy. As a child, he was so good at math—and so absorbed by it—that he began to dedicate free time to working on math problems of his own invention.

In the popular imagination, mathematics is very often understood as a tool for advancing scientific research. It's a means to an end. It turns out, however, that many mathematicians don't feel this way. Pflueger and I discussed the fact that there are major disagreements within mathematics departments about whether math is more akin to art or science.

Pflueger was careful to explain the attractions of each view. "It's different things to different people to different degrees," he hedged. But he confessed that he thinks it's more like an art, "just because that's closer to my source of enjoyment of it. The draw I have to mathematical reasoning is the same draw I have to philosophy and to idea-driven fiction." Pflueger noted that, although the same people are often interested in both math and science, this doesn't necessarily mean mathematics is akin to science. "People naturally drawn to philosophy or literature are unlikely to explore the deeper, more beautiful parts of math because their sole exposure to it has been a track geared toward science, with all the creativity and imagination removed. But if we required you to pass an exam in botany before studying the piano, we'd be amazed at how many pianists were passionate about botany."

In some ways, the prevalent insistence on practicality in STEM fields seems like a form of anti-intellectualism: It promotes a reductionist view of science and math, rather than embracing the diversity and complexity of various disciplines. Not all humanists are fanciful and flighty, and not all scientists are hard-nosed and pragmatic.