Ever since one of our profs said ‘most of the beautiful things are useless’, I was disturbed by the fact that in mathematics and physics, most of the intellectually deeper works don’t have practical value. This means, there is no value associated with the ability to do such a deep work. Also many of my friends keep asking me what is the point of all the hard core theory in physics, and why do I study them? The best way to analyse it is to look at the history.
When he(mentioning who ‘he’ is, is irrelevant :P ) was on his way back from his work, his car broke down. He went to a mechanic, got it repaired, and reached home. At home, relaxing on a chair, he was thinking about his car’s history. Half an hour ago, it was at the mechanic shop. The mechanic is an important person in the car’s and its owner’s immediate history. If he hadn’t done his job, the man wouldn’t be home by now. His work has had immediate effects on the car and it’s owner. However, the job wasn’t a high skill-demanding one; in fact, with a little experience, anyone could have done that job. Also, the guy is not remembered; the man paid him and forgot about him. That completes the first layer of the car’s history.
Where was the car before this? The next interesting part in it’s history is when it’s model was designed. At this stage, it is not just it’s history, it is the history of all cars of it’s model. This was about a decade ago. The car was on paper, on the desk of the man who designed it. This man, is another person who influenced the car’s future. His job, unlike the mechanic’s, didn’t have an immediate impact. If he hadn’t done his job, that would have probably gone un noticed after all! The effect of his effort would have taken a couple of years to come out. But this guy is actually skilled; any arbitrary person cannot be trained to do this work. One needs to be a little talented to be able to learn to do such a job. And, at least people in his company will remember him for designing that model. So That’s the second layer.
The third layer is over 250 years ago.(that’s exponential in time! 30 mins-10yrs-200yrs). This car and several other machines had their common point in history, on the notebooks of the guys who discovered the laws of thermodynamics. Now there is a trend!. This piece of work takes 100s of years to yield its value!. At the time they did it, no one could have imagined that someone will make an auto-mobile out of it, 200 years later!. Coming to the skill required, even a considerably talented person cannot be trained to do such a job. It requires a rare capability. And after 200 years, we still remember them for their work!
I have spoken about three quantities-the time scale in which the work will be utilised, the skill levels required and the reward in terms of people remembering the man who did it. And, the trend is clear :D. That summarises all I have to say about the value of hard core theory.
However everything that looks deep and, useless at the moment is not necessarily going to be useful some 100 years later :D. In fact, most of them are so, which is to be understood from G H Hardy’s A Mathematician’s apology, where he justifies the work of a mathematician saying they are harmless, rather than useful :D. To foresee what could be useful in the long run is unimaginably non trivial!. It is possible that a great mind can foresee it; but they usually work for the fun of it, rather than its impact on the society in the long run. It seems to me, that Newton might have foreseen the impact of his laws of motion-the industrial revolution, although this impact was none of the reasons why he did all this work. But I believe he did not foresee the giant impact(we are able to watch TV today!) of his law of gravitation.