When scientists announced their discovery of gravitational waves in 2016, it made headlines all over the world. The existence of these invisible ripples in space-time had finally been confirmed.
It was a momentous feat in basic research, the curiosity-driven search for fundamental knowledge about the universe and the elements within it. Basic (or “blue-sky”) research is distinct from applied research, which is targeted toward developing or advancing technologies to solve a specific problem or to create a new product.
But the two are deeply connected.
“Applied research is exploring the continents you know, whereas basic research is setting off in a ship and seeing where you get,” says Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist at MIT. “You might just have to return, or sink at sea, or you might discover a whole new continent. So it’s much more long-term, it’s riskier and it doesn’t always pay dividends.”
When it does, he says, it opens up entirely new possibilities available only to those who set sail into uncharted waters.