Commentary | The conversationalist: The case for irrelevance

I love Romantic poetry, but according to my uncle, it’s “completely useless, and contributes nothing to society. It’s a self-indulgent, self-satisfying area of study, and as long as I live, I’ll tell you so.” This got me feeling bad for feeling deeply in love with anything so chimeric as poetry.

But then I talked to Ken Ragan, Professor of Physics at McGill. He was part of a team of scientists that discovered the Top Quark, which is of no practical use, but whose discovery solidifies our current theories of matter. He told me many “useless” and fascinating things about black holes and anti-matter, and he said something that – to me, in my current state of self-doubt – was particularly useful: “I sleep very well at night, knowing full well that what I do is irrelevant.”

I feel quite an affinity for Ragan’s way of thinking, because if it weren’t for people like my uncle, I would sleep well at night knowing full well that Romantic poetry is irrelevant.

Since neither the study of astrophysics or Romantic poetry is directly driven by humanitarian or economic ends, they are naively deemed irrelevant. Although I may appreciate Ragan’s corroborating my beliefs about education, the discussion begs the question: why in the name of all that is relevant do we continue investing hours and dollars into these disciplines? People are dying, while we indulge our “passions.”

“In science, we talk about applied science versus curiosity-driven science,” Ragan explained. “Astrophysics is not relevant in that it makes someone’s life better or easier, but there is value in finding out how the world works…. Curiosity-driven science is a cultural endeavour, just as much as is something like Hollywood.” And when the first man laid his carefully constructed moon boot on the moon, the world watched and clutched their hands to their chests, fingers interlocked for the pride of the human race. And the celestial bodies spin around us, and we feel a sense of contentment, just knowing that we know that they’re there.

But more fundamentally, Ragan believes that so-called “irrelevant” disciplines change our approach to living. “Physics taught me that the world is an understandable place. Physics allows you to take a large problem and break it up into small, manageable pieces, and from there you can find a solution,” he said. “Physics also taught me to look for proof, and to stand by conclusions based on empirical evidence.” Can you imagine if everyone made judgments based on evidence? So simple!

In my case, Romantic poetry taught me that one’s compassion is directly proportionate to one’s imaginative capacity, and appropriately, that the truest way to see the world is with a childish sense of wonder. These may be romantic notions, but they’re also constructive. In this way, every irrelevant undertaking somehow contributes to social progress and to humanitarianism. Irrelevance does not imply “of no value.” There are certain modes of thought, approaches, and attitudes that we learn from such disciplines, the worth of which are great, though neither concrete nor quantifiable.

Rosie’s column appears every other Thursday. You can send quarks to theconversationalist@mcgilldaily.com.


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