The shunning of Denis Mukwege in favour of chemical weapon destroyers in Syria in the Nobel peace stakes was yesterday's curiosity. But physics and chemistry Nobels often reward endeavours that began as pure curiosity. The shorthand is "blue skies research", work with no obvious practical application and no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
When the new physics laureates Peter Higgs and François Englert first proposed a particle now called the Higgs boson, the skies could not have been bluer. In 1964 there was a proposal that matter, space and time may have pecked out of some kind of cosmic egg, and a counter-proposal that the universe was eternal and looked to be expanding only because matter was constantly being created. For most people, both arguments had no more substance than fairy tales: there was no evidence. Almost 50 years on, Cern's Large Hadron Collider has more or less produced an answer to the question about why matter has mass. But even now, the Higgs boson represents no practical gain: it has not and cannot be seen, only inferred, and its inference merely confirms that so far the universe seems as some physicists thought.
Big deal? Yes. Because Higgs's and Englert's questions were seemingly impossible to answer, thousands of scientists had to devise once-unimaginable ways of answering them. Along the way, they achieved superconducting magnets of astonishing power, detectors of exquisite sensitivity and computer systems that could sift the fragments of 200m collisions a second. Technological advances pioneered at Cern which include the world wide web are all by-products of enthusiastic, committed and disinterested curiosity, yet they later enriched industry. So many advances that enhance our lives and line our pockets start the same way with a nagging question. Do heavy things fall faster? Why do things fall at all? What is heat? Is light a wave, or a particle? Why is the sky blue?
Newton's optics and mechanics, Davy's electrolysis experiments and Faraday's games with electromagnetism were all attempts simply to answer fundamental questions about the nature of our world. Governments always try to devise mechanisms that will turn fresh discovery into new business, and so they should, but the best investment of all could be in science driven by pure curiosity, sometimes at the simplest level. The confirmation of the Higgs boson was a landmark in physics, and rightly saluted by the Nobel committee. But visible matter stars, galaxies, planets and so on makes up only 4% of the universe. So the next thrilling blue skies question is: what is the rest of the universe made of?