Curiosity and Utility, justifications for science

I saw this Science News report on the analysis of how elephants are able to manipulate delicate things with their heavy trunks. At the end of it, the report talks about some justifications for why this information might be useful. For instance, a trunk-like robotic manipulator might be useful for search and rescue.

I think that might end up being useful, but I’m also just curious. How does the elephant do it? I want to know. The trick seems to be “virtual joints” that the elephant adjusts up or down the trunk length to support more or less of the trunk’s weight. That allows the trunk to be used for coarse or delicate tasks as necessary. That’s just clever.

I spend a lot of time trying to find a problem to solve. I think that the bio-detector particles that I am making in the lab will be useful for measuring biochemicals like cytokines. I think that measuring cytokines early and often will be useful for medicine. It turns out that there is significant diversity among humans in their baseline cytokine expression levels. So just knowing what is a normal, average expression level for one of these proteins is not good enough. To make sense of the data, we need individualized, normal, baseline measurements. Then we need to look for changes in a particular person’s levels that would indicate disease. And, ideally, we would have all of that data cross referenced with clinical outcomes. That way, every change could be interpreted in the light of as much data as possible. I think my research can help enable this kind of medical “big data” project.

Sometimes wish I could do this research just because it is cool. Just because I am curious if these particles can be made to talk to one another. Just because I want to see how far I can push the idea of a computational particle entity. I appreciate the needs of medicine, and I want to contribute, but I wonder why our culture seems so reluctant to support pure curiosity?