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October 27, 2005
The Fundamental Things Apply

When scientists talk about the fundamental things, they're not usually thinking about a fight for love and glory or a case of do or die. More likely they're thinking about quarks, or the electromagnetic force, or the dark energy that fills and shapes the cosmos, or equally far-out matters.

This issue of Science@Berkeley Lab features a sampler of just this sort of research. Some of it was conducted 50 years ago: the discovery of the antiproton, only the second constituent of antimatter ever found, established that indeed there is an antiparticle to every particle (although some, like photons and gluons, are their own antiparticles). There are other questions, however, like the nature of dark energy, that couldn't have been asked even 10 years ago.

A number of fundamental questions have been around a while but are still lively, like what a glueball — the product of interacting gluons — might look like. And physics doesn't have a lock on the fundamentals: only recently has the nature of the bonds that form, however evanescently, between tumbling molecules of liquid water become less murky.

How do these fundamental things apply? "What is the use of a newborn baby?" is the legendary rejoinder, variously attributed to Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin, and others, probably falsely. It's a nice evasion, though not particularly helpful. The straight answer is that there's little chance we'll ever be able to know in advance if a particular avenue of fundamental research will turn out to be as useful as, say, Tang or Velcro.

But it's equally certain that without a willingness to root for curious scientists and applaud answers to really basic scientific questions, many of the applications we take for granted in the contemporary world, from laptop computers to communications satellites to the prevention of infectious diseases, would never have come to pass.

If you have comments or questions about any of the articles in this issue of Science@Berkeley Lab, just drop us an email.

Paul Preuss, Editor, Science@Berkeley Lab