Studying for studying’s sake has been sacrificed


ANTI-MATTER has been found. And the world did not explode! Having previously barely existed outside imaginary locations such as the engines of the Starship Enterprise, this illusive substance has recently made the leap from science fiction to science fact. Whereas all matter in our experience is built of atoms, containing negatively-charged electrons circling protons with a positive charge, modern theories of physics have proposed that the universe contains a matching quantity of anti-atoms, with positive positrons orbiting antiprotons.

Traces of anti-particles have been observed in particle colliders in the past, but since anti-matter and matter annihilate each other as soon as they meet, it has not been possible to preserve them for long enough to allow any analysis of their properties. Now, using a new technique, scientists have been able to trap minute quantities of anti-matter in such a way that allows them to begin to examine its energy and response to gravity. It is hoped that this will enable current theories regarding the nature and building blocks of physical existence to be tested, and for us to understand more of the structure of the universe itself.

This was just the latest discovery that has come out of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, which runs the CERN laboratory outside Geneva. CERN is a unique institution; it was one of the first examples of a trans-national project, with 20 countries contributing to its staff and, more crucially, its budget. Nearly $1 billion is provided each year in order to fund the discovery and examination of sub-atomic particles such as specks of anti-matter and much more.

But what is most significant, and increasingly rare today, is that this vast budget produces nothing. No inventions, no consumer goods and hence no profits. Nothing, that is, except knowledge. And not knowledge that can directly increase food production or hold back the tide of climate change. Knowledge with no productive benefit whatsoever — except the unquantifiable advantage of increasing humanity’s understanding of the universe.

Naturally, as with any major scientific research, there are useful by-products. It was at CERN in 1989 that researchers found a way to link their computers together in order to share information quickly — and the World Wide Web was born. And maybe, far in the future, the discoveries that come from the particle accelerators in the Swiss Alps will be applied to solve problems that we cannot imagine today, though it is unlikely that anti-matter will be used to power space ships. But, meanwhile, 20 governments are collectively providing vast funds for the sake of pure research.

Sadly, this is a declining trend. As universities around the world are forced to look less to the state and more to private companies for funding, their new sponsors will often insist that research must produce a profit. This, in turn, forces researchers to focus on short-term projects, which can be quickly used to create products that the public, or governments, or the military will pay for. Studies that do nothing other than increase our knowledge get pushed to the end of the queue.

It’s not just universities that are turning away from “knowledge for its own sake” towards “knowledge for profit”. The Government’s somewhat ill-fated plan for a National Curriculum was originally launched with the specific aim of enabling Australia to “compete in the world economy” — a throwback to a model of public education from which we have tried to escape over the past 150 years, in which the objective of schooling is solely to create an efficient workforce.

The VCE and HSC syllabuses will not, in the initial phase, be included in the National Curriculum, but the pressure generated by the requirements for entry into university has already drained those courses of the spirit of “learning of knowledge” and filled them instead with “learning how to pass exams”. Indeed, for too many students, the very subjects chosen for VCE are based on what combination will maximise an ATAR score, rather than what will be interesting and exciting to learn. Teachers are reluctantly forced to withhold stimulating ideas if they are “not going to be on the exam”, since students are obliged by the pressure for marks to regard such diversions as distractions.

This week, our schools have farewelled their year 12 students as they leave school and, for the most part, head towards university. I hope that, despite the pressures of VCE and HSC, and the pressures of the global marketplace for skills, during their school careers they have acquired a love for learning, even without an obvious utilitarian purpose. I hope that they have a passion and desire to push the frontiers of their own knowledge and ultimately that of mankind. And maybe, if anyone is going to explain why there is more matter than anti-matter in the universe, an observation which contradicts the predictions of the current model, it could be one of our community’s students who have just celebrated their graduation.