The science of crystallography uses x-rays to look at the structure of materials, how the atoms link together. It was first used with crystals but now can look at any material. It was developed at our own University of Leeds before the First World War by a man named Bragg. It’s covered in Mick McCann’s excellent book “How Leeds Changed The World”.
It was also the topic for discussion on Radio 4’s In Our Time this week. Two things struck me from this programme. The first was that the work was undertaken out of curiosity, because we now could find out how the sodium and chlorine atoms are put together in salt. Bragg had no idea, or interest, that there might be commercial applications. Nor did he know that it would help unravel the mystery of DNA and thereby help spawn the amazing bio-tech industry.
The second thing that struck me was that as crystallography is more of a technique than a pure science, it brings together lots of people from different disciplines. Mathematicians, Biologists, Material Scientists, Physicists, etc. When these people get together and talk sparking all sorts of new ideas. As a result new investigations undertaken. It’s very creative.
This is an important aspect of the scientific approach and was also discussed on The Infinite Monkey Cage this week. This is another Radio 4 programme I’m afraid – are you spotting a pattern? It’s a very accessible programme presented by heart-throb (apparently) Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince.
Anyway, a guest suggested that this approach of curiosity was the same as the artist’s approach – art for art’s sake. The reply was that a scientist always has a question they are trying to answer when they start an investigation. It might not be a commercial question, but who knows where it might lead.
But there’s a problem. The government has said that it will only pay for scientific research that has a commercial application. It wants a payback into the economy and it doesn’t want any risk. Most (all?) of the great scientific breakthroughs would not have been funded by this government. Take DNA, it was decades before there were any commercial applications of the science. Now we have cancer treatments, genetic engineering (for good or bad), forensics and more.
What’s all this got to do with the Community Reporters course South Leeds Life is running?
Well, like many community education programmes there isn’t really a commercial spin off. There are transferable skills in terms of writing and photography, but at least two of the current participants are retired so they aren’t going to use these skills to find a job.
Once again, the government says it won’t fund education courses that don’t lead to improved employment prospects for the students.
I don’t want to embarrass anyone on the course, but I know that it has made a big difference to at least a couple of people’s self-esteem and sense of well-being. Big deal, what’s the economic value of that?
We can be a help or hindrance to our family, we pass on our energy, or lack of it. If we are stressed or depressed we cause problems for others. If we are self-confident we won’t be a burden and are more likely to help others.
After she retired, my mother used to go to a Literature class. It was very important to her, she was out of her house, meeting other people and was intellectually stimulated. I’m sure it’s one of the things that kept her mind sharp into her 80’s. The course was cancelled because it didn’t have economic value, yet I’m sure it saved the NHS and the Council money on her care.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that funders should look at the big picture in terms of the outcomes that any scientific research or education course (or any other project) might have. You might not be able to put an economic value on the outcome, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth something. For me, I get great satisfaction from seeing people write and publish for the first time. And from knowing that I’ve enriched their lives in some small way.
Jeremy Morton will be back next week with more of his views from South of the River.