The world’s biggest rock star right now is the James Webb Space Telescope.
There are thousands of scientific specialties; a million fascinating fields of study on which to focus. Everything from the tiniest nanoparticles in quantum entanglement experiments to the largest objects in our solar system has its own scientific acolytes and dedicates.
But the biggest, most influential branch of science, has probably always been the Why Sciences.
Whoever called necessity the mother of invention was only half right. Invention has a million mothers- necessity is only one of them. Another mother of invention has been humankind’s epic struggle to make camping easier- which we can thank for things like indoor plumbing.
Another mother of invention, unfortunately, has been the arms race.
Invention’s most prolific mother, however, has been the Why Sciences.
Many scientists pursue a lifetime of professional obsession in a variety of subjects and disciplines for one very simple reason: They want to know why.
Scientists aren’t all looking for something specific; they aren’t all interested in the practical applications of their experiments and some even less so in any potential financial remuneration.
They are scientists for the same reason humanity started producing scientists long before the first university opened its doors, before the first printing press cranked out its first book, eons before the pentium processor and the Super Hadron Collider.
There were scientists before there were degrees in science. There have always been naturalists and observers of the natural world who puttered around in pea patches experimenting in genetics or noticed the patterns made by the stars in the heavens.
Early scientists were distinguished by the same characteristics scientists still have today: They wanted to know things, urgently. And they were willing to take copious notes.
Thanks to early experimenters in science and engineering, humans invented math and the wheel. Scientific pioneers launched the Iron Age, the Industrial Age and the Information Age.
Where will they take us next?
Scientific trailblazers have launched more ships than Helen of Troy. But they don’t always land where they expect or intend to end up. In fact, some ships of pure curiosity reach shores uncharted. Not everyone who sets out to cure a disease cures that disease; sometimes they set out to cure one disease and cure another by accident.
They invent the automobile and put billions of overburdened work animals out of a job. They stumble upon the formula for anesthesia, officially delivering mankind from a time when, “a blood-curdling range of saws, knives and sharp hooks were used to administer much-needed surgery.”
They are like great artists who take up painting to support their sculpture habit and wind up painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Like artists, great scientists often die full of regret about the work they didn’t get done.
“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have,” were Leonardo Da Vinci’s final immortal words.
Like artists, many scientists are that rarest type of person who is willing to plant a tree and nurture it their entire lives knowing all the while they will never, ever sit beneath it. Someone else will always have to finish the work.
Hence the copious notes.
Had we confined science and scientists to the purely practical, foreseeable, direct applications, human beings would still be relying on the hand axe.
Not everyone knows where their burning scientific questions will taken them, if anywhere.
There is no great art without bad art, mediocre art, middling art, decent art and every other type of art. The same is true of science. Without blind alleys, wrong turns, mistakes, even aimless wandering, science would still be stuck in the dark ages.
Opponents of the Why Sciences, who object to scientific organizations like NASA on the practical basis of financial constraints, humanity’s many pressing problems, or disdain for pure curiosity are missing an important piece of the puzzle of human development.
Our collective drive to find answers, solve problems, satisfy curiosity, and beat back the ravages of life of earth as we know it is the main reason human beings have been, arguably, the most successful animal species in history.
What David Bowie did for rockstars, the James Webb Space Telescope has done for the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Millions of enthusiastic kids from all over the world have been inspired to get involved in the sciences after a summer of following Webb’s progress through the galaxy.
And we need the STEM disciplines; badly. We still need bridges and airplanes to stay up.
Futurists predict that as many as 70% of the jobs which exist today won’t exist in 10 years.
Who can tell college freshman, rising seniors, or even recent grads what to do with their vocational lives from here on out?
Decades ago, aspiring to work a good paying union job in an American factory was a solid life trajectory. In those days, aspiring to become a writer was an idle dream on par with wanting to be an astronaut or a movie star.
Nowadays, the factory jobs are gone and content creators are in high demand.
The major breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology which humanity used to enjoy every thousand years or so, then every hundred, then once a decade are happening with exponential frequency.
The scientists of the world are better able to pool their growing collective of knowledge, joining together bodies of work with the life’s work of successive scientists, engineers, inventors and doctors.
Perhaps the scientists at NASA won’t save the planet with their astronomically expensive launches and discoveries in far-distant space.
But the next generation of scientists and engineers inspired by NASA’s work might. Tomorrow’s top minds are currently in the earliest phases of their STEM educations and careers.
James Webb has introduced students from all over the world to the wonders of STEM. If it achieves nothing else, it has already been a great success.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)