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Why Basic Research. Illustrated via “Dominoes — HARDCORE Mode”

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Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash
Destin Sandlin, creator of the YouTube channel, “Smarter Every Day,” is a rocketry engineer at the Redstone Arsenal. Arguably, his breakout video demonstrated the remarkable ability of chickens to keep their heads stable independent of their bodies. You can google “Inverted Pendulum” for an idea of how important a problem this is for engineers. His channel was a golden opportunity to get his children involved performing experiments and learning science by experience, while also supplementing their college funds. He also leveraged his success to help build an orphanage in Peru. His videos range from slow-motion videography of Prince Rupert’s Drops and explosions, to the mechanics of insect flight, to entomology adventures in South America.

In particular, I’d like to mention the recent Episode #182: Dominoes — HARDCORE Mode. There’s amazing subtlety in something as simple and whimsical as a chain of falling dominoes and Destin captures it beautifully. Destin’s experience as an engineer sees a pattern, the signature of the corrections that rockets make mid-flight. Dominoes and rockets may seem unrelated, but no chain of dominoes is perfect and rockets have to fight through turbulence. We hope that our dominoes all fall in a row, and we seriously hope that our rockets don’t spiral out of control. Maybe dominoes can tell us something about stability, and studying dominoes might help us make better rockets.

This is where Destin makes an appeal for Basic Research. We don’t get some obvious economic benefit from understanding how dominoes fall, but we learn a lot in the process. There are many curiosities in the world and dozens of mysteries even in the most mundane aspects of daily life. For some, curiosity is enough. To others, these questions sound frivolous. However, we don’t always know what rewards we will reap when we empower thoughtful individuals to follow their noses and give them the freedom to explore.

For some, curiosity is enough. To others, these questions sound frivolous. However, we don’t always know what rewards we will reap when we empower thoughtful individuals to follow their noses and give them the freedom to explore.

History has shown that the rewards can be numerous, and sometimes fundamental. The transistor, the cornerstone of modern technology, would make no sense were it not for our understanding of quantum mechanics. The foundation of quantum mechanics was laid by scientists who were puzzled by the colors that objects glow when they get really hot (from red to white to blue). The eureka moment that solved that riddle changed everything about how we see the world at the smallest scales, and produced one of the most important technological revolutions of all time.

This is the foundation of science; dues that must be paid if we intend to advance. While the development of the transistor paid great dividends, it wasn’t remotely obvious that the specific color a hot poker glows would ever be understood as anything more than a novelty. Another example, we don’t study fruit flies because we want to develop medicine for fruit flies. We study fruit flies because their genetics are simple and easy to probe. As we improve our understanding of genetics in the abstract, we improve our capacity to provide treatments for people.

It is concerning that the US government share of basic research funding has fallen below 50% for the first time in the post-World War II era. While some of this is due to an increase in corporate investment, particularly on the part of the pharmaceutical industry, a significant part of it is because we as a nation are increasingly declining to contribute budget dollars. While the increase in private investment since 2012 is helpful, the findings of private and corporate investment are not as openly shared as public endeavors, including even basic data as to whether the research being conducted is actually basic or applied.

Basic research is not really conducive to business, at least not at the early stages that can have the greatest impact. The outcomes are too uncertain, desirable tangents are too frequent, and the timelines are too long. The risky and meandering path of basic research is often not good for business. It’s not just unrealistic to expect captains of industry to conduct this kind of research; it’s not really a fair expectation because people depend on them to ensure the bottom line and provide safe investments.

It’s not just unrealistic to expect captains of industry to conduct this kind of research; it’s not really a fair expectation because people depend on them to ensure the bottom line and provide safe investments.


Occasionally, a singular individual arises like Elon Musk, who seems to regard profit as a means to innovation rather than the other way around. However, the ability, desire, and charisma required to make that work and bring people along is  rare. People like him are important, but we cannot rely on them alone to address the issues that we face. Not only is his combination of qualities rare, we must also acknowledge that he’s still very limited in what he alone will champion. The kinds of things he is trying to develop are still technologies with immediate practical application and relatively short-term monetary benefit.

This is not the pursuit for those who want to take advantage of the opportunities in the marketplace. This is the pursuit that creates those opportunities. We have to decide, as a society, if we wish to pursue them and how much we will invest. Philanthropists are important, but the truly altruistic are rare and, quite frankly, can’t do everything we need alone. We still need public funding that supports the kinds of basic research that are only really feasible in universities and national labs.

This is not the pursuit for those who want to take advantage of the opportunities in the marketplace. This is the pursuit that creates those opportunities. We have to decide, as a society, if we wish to pursue them and how much we will invest. Philanthropists are important, but the truly altruistic are rare and, quite frankly, can’t do everything we need alone. We still need public funding that supports the kinds of basic research that are only really feasible in universities and national labs.

MIT released a report in 2015 highlighting 15 research opportunities that could boost the US Economy.  It also noted that while other nations are boasting great discoveries, our commitment has fallen from 10% of the national budget in 1968 to less than 4% in 2015. A 2014 article illustrated some of the extraordinary yields our past commitment enabled, from GPS, to the discovery of cancer cells and other medical breakthroughs, to LiquiGlide, which was named by TIME magazine as among the best inventions of 2012.  From the article:

For more than 60 years, MIT and other American research universities have led the world in discovery and innovation—with benefits to the entire country—due to federal funding. This vital support, however, is now on the decline. In 1960, for example, 55 percent of MIT’s campus revenue came from federal research dollars. By 2013, it fell to 22 percent. Chisholm says the decline is disrupting the research process.

‘Researchers are focusing on projects with a high probability of results, because these projects have a better chance of getting funded. What’s happening is faculty are doing safe things because they know they’ll work. They take fewer risks, but then the probability of discovering something really new and exciting goes down.”

The challenges we face are great, and we will not meet them by hoping that great men will resolve them on the way to seeking their own fortunes. There are some endeavors that require us to come together and make investments into the pursuit of knowledge for the common good. Basic scientific research is one of them. From dominoes to rockets, from a quirk of light to the computer, we don’t always know what we will find when we veer off the beaten path. It may seem like we’re merely taking the scenic route. However, we rarely find something truly new when we stick to the main road; the innovations that touch billions of lives lie in yet-undiscovered country.

The challenges we face are great, and we will not meet them by hoping that great men will resolve them on the way to seeking their own fortunes. There are some endeavors that require us to come together and make investments into the pursuit of knowledge for the common good. Basic scientific research is one of them.

Spencer Thomas is a PhD candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He also happens to be Katie’s brother. He studies metals at the atomic level; the way atoms are arranged in a material can change its properties. There are ways to take an ordinary metal and make it 10-100x stronger, but they return to normal over time by a process called grain growth. In his recent publication in Nature Communications, he develops a rudimentary theory, backed by simulations, for understanding the fundamental mechanisms of grain growth and what they mean for attempts to stabilize these materials. While we and many involved in the study of very small things are excited about that, here we look forward to sharing with you other things that stimulate his very sharp mind.