Science is often described as a journey of exploration. You might imagine scientists carefully planning an expedition, gathering their equipment, then venturing out into the wilds of Nature, traveling as far as they can before returning with tales of the wonders they discovered.
This misses an important part of the story, though. In science, exploration isn’t just about discovering the true nature of Nature, as important as that is. It’s also about laying the groundwork for future exploration.
Picture our explorers, traveling out into the wilderness with no idea what’s in store. With only a rough idea of the challenges they might face, they must pack for every possibility: warm clothing for mountains, sunscreen for the desert, canoes to ford rivers, cameras in case they encounter capybaras. Since they can only carry so much, they can only travel so far before they run out of supplies.
Once they return, though, the explorers can assess what they did and didn’t need. Maybe they found a jungle, full of capybaras. The next time they travel they’ll make sure to bring canoes and cameras, but they can skip the warm coats. This lets them free up more room, letting them bring more supplies that’s actually useful. In the end, this lets them travel farther.
Science is a lot like this. The more we know, the better questions we can ask, and the further we can explore. It’s true not just for experiments, but for theoretical work as well. Here’s a slide from a talk I’m preparing, about how this works in my sub-field of Amplitudeology.
In theoretical physics, you often start out doing a calculation using the most general methods you have available. Once you’ve done it, you understand a bit more about your results: in particular, you can start figuring out which parts of the general method are actually unnecessary. By paring things down, you can figure out a new method, one that’s more efficient and allows for more complicated calculations. Doing those calculations then reveals new patterns, letting you propose even newer methods and do even more complicated calculations.
It’s the circle of exploration, and it really does move us all, motivating everything we do. With each discovery, we can go further, learn more, than the last attempt, keeping science churning long into the future.