What makes us worth defending

Senator John Pastore: “Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?”

Physicist Robert Rathburn Wilson: “No sir, I don’t believe so.”

Pastore: “Nothing at all?”

Wilson: “Nothing at all.”

Pastore: “It has no value in that respect?”

Wilson: “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

— From the testimony of Robert Rathburn Wilson before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 1969. As quoted in a lovely memorial to Wilson and the Fermi National Laboratory's Tevatron by science blogger Jennifer Ouellette

The Tevatron is set for shutdown on September 30. The point here, I think, is not that the Tevatron, specifically, must be kept alive at all costs. But rather that the willingness to fund curiosity-driven research is one of our better angels. Humanity benefits from knowledge, even if that knowledge doesn't immediately and directly lead to cool gadgets, bigger bombs, or a cure for cancer. And it benefits the United States to be the sort of place that contributes to the betterment of humanity.