Interesting article in The Observer on how difficult it is to make guesses for science areas that are likely to lead to high impact commercial success:
IF YOU’RE planning watch a DVD today, listen to a CD, play a computer game, go to a supermarket, browse the web, or do 100 other everyday tasks, spare a thought for the invention that has shaped our lives and revolutionised our manufacturing industries: the laser.
The name is an acronym for Light Amplification from the Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
The reason we’re celebrating the laser this year is that 50 years ago Theodore Maiman, a researcher at the Hughes Research Labs, built the first one, using a ruby crystal to produce a beam of red light.
Lasers are thus a critical part of our technological infrastructure, yet no one involved in the research that led to them had any inkling of what their investigations would produce. The original idea goes back to a paper Albert Einstein published in 1917 on “The Quantum Theory of Radiation” about the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. For 40 years, stimulated emission was of absorbing interest to quantum physicists, but of little interest to anyone else – certainly to nobody in government.
Which brings us to Lord Mandelson, now in charge of all government funding of universities and academic research. He has no personal experience of research in science or technology, but, like many people whose minds are unclouded by knowledge, has strong views on these matters.
They are working on a “Research Excellence Framework” which will require applicants for funding to cite “demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life”. This bodes ill for any scientist or engineer interested in curiosity-driven research.
Update: On reflection I changed the title and url of this post to the current one from the original ‘Predicting The Future With Lasers’. This may have caused unintended confusion or irritation – many apologies! See also comment below.
Picture credit here.