Global Crisis/Innovation Blog

Finding Golden Eggs Among Basic Science Geese

By Shlomo Maital










In a fascinating address given yesterday by Prof. Haim Harari, long-time (1988-2001) President of Israel’s Weizman Institute,  the sometimes-weird link between great basic research and ‘golden eggs’ (commercial wealth, jobs, and income) was explained.  Harari gave as an example RSA (the Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) algorithm, used widely for encryption, the foundation of security on the Internet.   (Adi Shamir did the basic research while at MIT but then joined the Weizman Institute).  

      Here is how it works (from Wikipedia): 

   The algorithm involves multiplying two large prime numbers (a prime number is a number divisible only by that number and one) and through additional operations deriving a set of two numbers that constitutes the public key and another set that is the private key. Once the keys have been developed, the original prime numbers are no longer important and can be discarded. Both the public and the private keys are needed for encryption /decryption but only the owner of a private key ever needs to know it. Using the RSA system, the private key never needs to be sent across the Internet.  The private key is used to decrypt text that has been encrypted with the public key. Thus, if I send you a message, I can find out your public key (but not your private key).   It is an almost unbreakable encryption code.

 The point Harari makes is that if you asked someone three decades ago, what is the most utterly useless, impractical field of basic research in the world, hands down ‘number theory’ would have won.  Number theory is the study of numbers – integers and primarily, prime numbers.  Who would have thought that number theory would become the foundation of Internet encryption and security, in term the foundation of the use of Internet for e-commerce and anything involving payment and sensitive information?  

   Harari’s message is clear.  Allow curiosity to drive basic research.  Strive for excellence.  Do not try to calculate which basic research is potentially useful, and which part is not.  You simply cannot predict.  Who knew that the abstract research in physics on “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” (maser) and “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” would become the ubiquitous laser, the heart of the huge consumer electronics industry?   

     The “valley of death” (the huge gap between a basic science breakthrough and its successful commercialization) is  very real.  It needs to be overcome. But the point is, there is no valley at all to cross, if there is no strong basic research.  Japan, for instance, discovered long ago that it cannot continue to borrow the basic research of other nations forever; every nation has to do its own.