What is the point of research?
Sometimes, either during outreach seminars or even with my friends, people will ask me: are you useful for anything? "You" of course meaning "you astronomers", but the same question is asked to researchers in many other fields. The overall tone of the question can be different, and often it reveals the opinion of the person asking. You have the curious tone of one who is expecting a positive reply, the slightly more skeptical tone of someone who has already decided we are practically useless, and rarely there's also the fascinated tone of one who is inebriated by the mystery and by the immense, and wants to know if there's more beyond the amazement. In common they all have the same implied question, which sounds more or less like: "but does your research have any technological relevance?". You might ask what's weird about that? It's a legitimate, honest and sensible question after all. Instead, inside me, I always feel a huge amount of anger. Don't misunderstand me, it's never directed towards whoever asked that question, but towards our nonsensical world. Let me try to explain why…
Point one: let's get any misunderstanding out of the way. Research in astronomy and astrophysics has fantastic technological applications. Just think about the (more and more sophisticated) instruments we have to invent to look at the sky at every wavelength, that can just as easily be used to look at things here on Earth. Think about all the devices and tricks invented in our field to avoid the distortions caused by the atmosphere, so that we can have more precise images of the sources we look at. These inventions just so happen to also have "normal" uses. Plus, think about the GPS in your car. Without General Relativity itself, that little voice would drive you into a wall. I could very easily go on.
Point two: all these cute inventions are completely irrelevant compared to the true value of research in general, and of research in astrophysics in particular. The true value is knowledge. Period. And why is it so valuable? Because it produces pleasure. It's an evolutionary fact: among all animals, we are the only ones who find pleasure in discovery, even if at the time we really don't know what to do with that same discovery. Note that this pleasure doesn't only invest the discoverer, but also those who receive the information about the discovery. It's contagious.
Point three: it's easy to find an analogy with the arts. Try asking Dante what his Divine Comedy is good for, or Michelangelo what the use of the ceiling in the Sistina Chapel is, and I’m sure you can imagine the look on their face. You wouldn't be brave enough to do it, would you? Then how is it that so many people ask me what the point of knowing there was a Big Bang is?
Point four: the analogy between art and science, just like any analogy, has some limits. We aren't artists, we are scientists, and there's a big difference. That said, maybe the pleasure we feel in front of great art is the brother of the pleasure we feel in knowing, and both had an origin at the dawn of mankind's history. Human beings who were good at discovering certain patterns and anomalies in the surrounding world probably had a pretty good advantage over their neighbours, despite being called out as slackers while they spent hours during storms just staring at the thunder and lightning, only to understand that sometime one could set a tree on fire. Maybe they noticed that the breaking of symmetry in the grass announced the arrival of some dangerous animal. Those individuals who felt pleasure in discovering new things evidently had an advantage over their kin who spent all their time hunting and none of their time asking themselves any questions. And so, this characteristic was passed on as a winning trait.
Point five: what's the point of fashionable clothing? To feel part of the herd? And who is the leader of the herd? Does anyone still ask himself these questions? Does anyone ever wonder which pleasures are primary, and which ones are induced? True enough, I can buy the perfect cellphone case and be happy, that's pleasure too. However, that pleasure comes from satisfying something that is induced by someone else, and is not a primary need of mine. The right colour for my cellphone is not written in my genes.
Final point: so whenever someone asks me "are you useful for anything?" I reply with pride: I try to create pleasure, so that our lives are a little more enjoyable.