Curiosity doesn't pay

June 2, 2000

The antiquity of the problems academics face in raising money for their research, particularly if it is "curiosity-driven research" ("Labour policy poses threat to freedom", THES, March 26) is illustrated by the following letter, "discovered" by a colleague in the 15th-century Polish archives (roughly translated, of course, from Latin).

To: Dr Miklaus Kopernik

Scuola Matematica Universita degli Studi

Bologna, Italia

May 23, 1498

Dear and Honoured Dr Kopernik,

It now becomes my honour to reply on behalf of this council to your esteemed application for an award to enable you to continue your research into the movements of the celestial bodies and of the divine order that maintains and moves them in their spheres.

Although the council is conscious of the distinction you have attained in the arts of mathematics and celestial observation, it is my regretful duty to have to inform you that the council has been obliged to reject your application.

The council notes that you have been pursuing your studies in Bologna with the support of funds provided by your Reverend and noble uncle, and that you plan to attend the celebrations in Rome for the year of our Lord 1500, there to deliver lectures in mathematics. It appears to the council, however, that the research programme that you have submitted, which, I beg to say, has been reviewed by appropriate authorities in both natural philosophy and religion, derives its primary motivation only from the human quality of intellectual curiosity. The council regrets that it is not persuaded that you have adequately demonstrated that your programme can have significant applications, both practical and beneficial.

This kingdom supplies its provender from the fertility of the fields and ensures its defence through the gallantry of its nobility in arms. Though your project, if it proves consistent with our holy religion, (which is by no means certain) may contribute to the virtue of this kingdom, it is not clear to the council that it will add to its wealth or military strength.

The council has the honour to observe without derogation of the beauty of mathematics, that the solemn truth that the circle is the perfect form, together with the positions and movements of the celestial bodies, are in fact already known; nor can they be supposed to have changed since the observations of Ptolemy and Aristotle; and further, that such slight deviations as might be detected by more recent and exact methods of Observation could not possibly alter the substance of the conclusions of these great authorities.

It is not the council's policy to expend royal funds in the promotion of purely abstract or speculative inquiries from which no benefit, but in the council's opinion possible harm, might accrue either to this kingdom or to Christendom at large. The council has asked me to convey these points to you with every mark of respect.

I have, Dear Doctor, the honour to subscribe myself, Your most obedient Servant, Secretary to the Council Office of the Royal Council for Research in Philosophy Natural and Divine, Warsaw Kingdom of Poland

J. R. Pole

20 Divinity Road, Oxford

Findings, pages 36-37

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