Any rigorous study of unpredicted applications of pure math?
September 30, 2011 4:29 PM Subscribe
It is often said that pure math research finds unpredictable applications long after it is done. Has anyone tried to investigate this phenomenon rigorously?
An example of this bit of conventional wisdom:
Trying to solve real-world problems, researchers often discover that the tools they need were developed years, decades or even centuries earlier by mathematicians with no prospect, or care for, applicability.
Peter Rowlett, "The unplanned impact of mathematics". Nature 475, 166–169. 2011 July 14. doi:10.1038/475166a (paywalled, I think)
Has anybody has tried to make a serious academic study of this phenomenon? For example, to try to determine whether math is actually unusual in this respect by any measure, or to try to do a cost/benefit analysis on doing research this way.
I am not asking whether pure math research is worthwhile, nor whether applications are the right measure of worth for such research. I am asking narrowly about this particular claim about applications.
(I was reminded of my interest in this question by one of wierdo's comments in today's Tevatron post to the blue.)