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Pure Science and Applied Science - What's the difference
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Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Feature Article
Pure Science and Applied Science (ESS9)

What's the difference?

Written by...

"Basic research is what I am doing when I don't know what I am doing."
- Werner Von Braun

"Eureka! I have found it!" As most everyone knows, this was the excited cry of Archimedes as he ran stark naked into the streets of ancient Saracuse. What exactly had he found? Well, it seems he had been asked by his pal King Hieron II to look over a gold crown. The crown had been made for him but the King suspected that it wasn't pure gold as claimed, but alloyed with silver.

Since silver is less dense than gold, the alloy would be bulkier than gold alone. Archimedes had to find a way to measure the volume of the crown. If he could prove that the crown had more volume than a piece of gold of the same weight, the jig would be up. As it turned out, he did and it did, so it was. How did he do it?

When he got into his bath that day, Archimedes noticed that as he sank deeper into the water, the water rose. That's when it hit him, the volume of his body was displacing an equal amount of water in his bath. Now he would only have to dunk the King's crown, measure the displaced water and so determine its volume. It was then, so the story goes, that he leapt out of his bath and out into the street to proclaim his discovery to whoever would listen.

For those who want to take another look at Archimedes and King Hieron's crown look here.

The flash of inspiration that led Archimedes to discover this basic scientific principle is common to most insights that make up our body of knowledge. Yet without King Hieron's not so golden crown it might not have occurred. Had he not been faced with the technological need to establish the crown's volume, Archimedes would most likely have reclined in his bath without a further thought.

This brings us to an interesting chicken-and-egg question. Are scientific insights in essence the product of invention or to what degree is the inventor a scientist. Is there a fundamental difference between pure and applied science? The current wisdom suggests that there is. In this model, the pure scientist pursues knowledge strictly for its own sake. The applied scientist uses known principles to solve practical problems1.

With that we have opened up a whole can of worms or a hornets' nest, which may be a better metaphor. As usual, the controversy has to do with power and money. There is a large and powerful lobby in the scientific community that wants to maintain the present state of affairs. That's what it's about you see, affairs of State or more specifically the role of the State in providing a steady stream of public money to feed the golden calf of "research".

Aside from the fact that this money ultimately comes out of your pocket and mine, there is the additional problem that the results of all this research—pure science if you will—may not be all that useful or even productive. Who says so? Terence Kealey, that's who in his controversial book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. In this book which is neatly summarized here, Professor Kealey makes the case that pure research, funded and inspired by practical needs is historically much more fruitful than the State-funded variety.

One of the points raised by Kealy is the role of technology, what we would call engineering or applied science, in leading to pure research instead of the other way around. He argues that in the past both in the United States and Britain the whole scientific enterprise was inspired by hobbyists who neither sought nor received Government funding. According to Kealey, "The loss of the hobby scientists has been unfortunate because the hobby scientists tended to be spectacularly good."

He continues, "They were good because they tended to do original science. Professional scientists tend to play it safe; they need to succeed, which tempts them into doing experiments that are certain to produce results. Similarly, grant-giving bodies which are accountable to government try only to give money for experiments that are likely to work...They represent the development of established science rather than the creation of the new. But the hobby scientist is unaccountable. He can follow the will-o'-the-wisp...Neither (Henry) Cavendish nor (Charles) Darwin would have survived in a modern university any better than did (1978 Nobelist Peter) Mitchell, yet they were scientific giants..."

Even Albert Einstein was essentially a "hobby" scientist. When he arrived at his insights on relativity was he struggling with what for him were real practical problems? In a sense he was trying to invent something—a theory that would account for the anomalies in the Newtonian physics of his day. It is said that his revelations on relativity occurred because he had a dream. In this dream he was riding a beam of light. With the kind logic only an Einstein could have mustered, this led him directly to the conclusion that the speed of light was a constant.  Eureka?

How did man discover that a polished lens could magnify things? Perhaps someone noticed that a large drop of water appeared to enlarge what was directly underneath. Is this how discoveries happen? Pay attention now! It gets tricky. In our hypothetical(?) case, what was the significant factor? Was it the fact that someone saw objects magnified by a water drop or was it the next step?

For discovery to happen someone has to make the connection, the connection between the observed phenomenon and its logical implications. One implication would be to arrive at some way to apply the insight i.e. make a lens. However, without some practical use—magnifying things—why take the process any further?

Without a need, real or perceived, discovery may not take place. Equally, without someone's having noticed the effect in the first place there would not have been a phenomenon to exploit. With this in mind let us visit some high points of discovery. We will see that man's curiosity is often influenced by practical considerations.

Copernicus, Galileo, and Phlogiston
Discovery occurs because someone asked a question. As likely as not that question is in response to a practical need. For example, shaping a piece of glass to duplicate the effect of that drop of water I mentioned earlier, would probably not have occurred without the practical application of enhanced vision.

In another example, what was Copernicus' mission? He wasn't looking to create a new cosmology. No, his goal was to simplify, if only on paper, the awkward description of the motion of the planets devised by Ptolemy. Ptolemy's system, as you may know, required the addition of evermore epicycles to the motion of the planets in order to "save the appearances".

Copernicus developed the convenient "fiction" of having the Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun, convenient because it addressed a need. Although it wasn't a perfect solution it reduced the number of "orbits" considerably. Was it a whim that led Galileo to point his telescope to the heavens and discover the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus? We know that he was aware of Copernicus' "fiction" and that probably caused to him check it out.

Most science starts with simple questions such as how, why or even why not. Even bad questions can lead to a positive outcome. I am reminded of the birth of modern chemistry. As in the case of much of science, there were many detours along the way. Very likely man's early attempts at metallurgy led him to ask what made it all happen. He came up with some very strange answers.

Creating metals from the earth, it was thought, involved a process of birth. In fact there is evidence to suggest actual embryos were tossed into the fire along with the ore to facilitate the process. The notion arose that gold being the noblest of all metals, was produced from lesser metals through some form of death and rebirth deep within the earth. This the alchemists tried to exploit

As many attempts were made to invent just the right combination of spiritual and secular events to produce the magic results, a number of processes were developed. In time these processes turned out to be useful as the experience of working with Mercury, Sulphur and other materials was applied to the issues of analysis in Chemistry.

Boyle, Priestly and Lavoisier
For nearly 2000 years, scholars believed that everything was made up of combinations of just four elements: air, earth, fire and water. This belief, predated Aristotle and survived until the 17th century. In Chemistry, one of the first to challenge this notion was Robert Boyle. In his book, The Skeptical Chymist he defined for the first time the modern idea of an element as a substance which cannot be broken down into simpler ones. He likely borrowed this concept from René Déscartes which is a bit ironic.

Ironic, because his famous law on gases was the result of his experiments to prove that a vacuum can exist, something Déscartes himself had roundly rejected. The law which states "that at a constant temperature the volume of a gas varies inversely with its pressure", was in fact tossed in as an afterthought to the main thrust of his research.

Anyway let's get back to Boyle's 'The Skeptical Chymist'. We now have a universe which chemically is composed of many different elements. This was ultimately put into a neat perodic table by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. But I digress. Let us talk instead about beer and a clergyman who lived next to a brewery.

His name was Joseph Priestley and in 1772 he invented soda water. Beer, unless it's flat, contains a lot of carbon dioxide. In fact the brewing process tends to produce too much of the stuff. Having access to an abundance, Priestley hit on the idea of saturating ordinary water with this gas. Being the godly man he was, he meant to create a cure for scurvy.

His concoction, carbonated water, never actually cured scurvy but it proved to be a delightful drink. Aside from the fact that the world owes him a debt of gratitude for this little gem, Priestley's experiments with gases led him to a much more significant discovery. In 1774 the Reverend discovered oxygen. Trouble is he didn't really believe he had.

Being a staunch believer in the phlogiston theory, he was convinced his new gas was dephlogisticated air. As soon as something was burned in its presence, the air would have it's phlogiston restored. It would no longer be "de-phlogisticated" and all would be well. We of course know the real story. The former was oxygen and the latter carbon dioxide.

In a little twist of history, unknown to the reverend, a German born, Swedish scientist Carl Wilhelm Scheele is thought to have isolated oxygen two years before Priestley did. Scheele called it combustion-supporting-gas and let it go at that. For the next step in our adventure we turn to a French scientist, Antoine Lavoisier. It wasn't until the work of Lavoisier that in 1770 the true nature of oxygen and its role in combustion was understood.

After conducting many experiments he learned that when oxygen was consumed during combustion, it increased the amount of fixed air, which was none other than carbon dioxide, the stuff Priestley used to make his soda pop.

This insight was the final piece in the puzzle. It was now known that when things burned in the presence of oxygen, the oxygen was diminished and the burned substance also lost mass. The lost mass of both was converted to carbon dioxide and the equation was left intact. Some of these things were known and the rest discovered through experiment until the theory fit the facts.

Antoine Lavoisier is often called the father of modern chemistry. This is not so much because he correctly identified oxygen and its role, but more because of his quantitative approach to the subject of analysis. Rather than argue about what the nature of this or that substance might be, he realized that by measuring the quantity of things he could draw valid conclusions.

Because of his methods he discovered many of the fundamental concepts still used in chemistry today. It is most unfortunate that at age 51 he became the victim of the French Revolution and was executed on the guillotine.

As we trace the events that led to the development of modern science we see that the quest for knowledge was driven by practical needs. Archimedes was trying to expose a fraud. Ptolemy was trying to create a chart of the movement of the stars and planets. Copernicus was trying to simplify these charts. Galileo wanted to confirm his suspicions that Copernicus' charts were probably the way things really were.

The alchemists were trying to manufacture gold. Boyle's law grew out of his desire to prove that a vacuum could exist and that the ether did not. Priestley was trying to find a cure for scurvy. Lavoisier was trying to prove that phlogiston did not exist. Most of these people were engaged in "pure" science. Were they driven simply by idle curiosity? Doesn't look like it.

1 This idea is neatly summarized in this website. The writer cites a book, Pure Science, Applied Science, and Technology: An Attempt at Definitions by K. Feibleman when he writes "that there is a fundamental difference between science, applied science and technology. This difference, according to Feibleman, is to be understood in terms of aims and ends pursued. Pure science is synonymous with "basic research" and it includes "a method of investigating nature by the experimental method in an attempt to satisfy the need to know.". In order for something to be considered pure science, according to Feibleman, the aim of the research is strictly curiosity. Feibleman holds that applied science, is "the use of pure science for some practical human purpose", it is concerned with "discovering applications of pure theory."

In other words, pure science aims at knowledge and is concerned with theoretical constructs ordered towards knowing, while applied science aims at practice and is concerned with theoretical constructs ordered towards practice. Technology, according to Feibleman, is different from applied science in that it is "a little nearer to practice". While both employ experiments, applied science does so guided by hypothesis that are deductions from pure theory while technology employs a method of trial and error and "skilled approaches derived from concrete experience". For Feibleman technology is synonymous with skill and its application in an activity that immediately produces artifacts."

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