The story of black holes and WiFi

When people find out what I do for a living, they often ask: “What good is basic research?”

It’s a fair question, so you might think that by now I would have a good, quick answer. But each time, I struggle to try and figure out what they might think is “good.”

I’m going to give you one of several examples of the consequences of basic research and then give you my answer for the real reason at the end of this article.

Basic vs applied research

Basic research, sometimes referred to as pure, fundamental or curiosity-driven, is used to improve scientific theories in order to better understand and predict natural phenomena. One example is particle physics, where the general goal is to understand the fundamental aspects of matter and energy and how they interact.

Applied or directed research is aimed at answering specific questions or solving practical problems: finding a cure for cancer or making a more efficient battery for electric cars.

I’m assuming that most readers have heard of black holes, the incredibly massive, compact objects with an insatiable appetite for matter. In fact, the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics was for the prediction of black holes based on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy that, for lack of a better explanation, is a black hole.

What you may not be aware of is that in 1974, Professor Stephen Hawking predicted the existence of “mini” black holes the size of a proton with a mass of a mere billion tons. He also predicted that these mini black holes would evaporate or explode, emitting a tiny radio signal.

A group of Australian radio astronomers, led by Dr. John O’Sullivan, decided they would try to detect the signals from these exploding mini black holes. This was a daunting task because the universe is full of radio waves and the tiny signals they were looking for were lost in a sea of “noise.”

In the process, they developed a mathematical technique to try and sort out the signals they were seeking. Ultimately, they failed. Nature is not always kind.

Finding commercial success

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Agency (CSIRO), the Australian laboratory where O’Sullivan worked, was looking for ways to commercialize their capabilities in radio astronomy.

In the early 1990s, the development of wireless networking was a major technical challenge of interest to many companies around the world. The main obstacle to wireless networking was that radio signals bounced around, off walls, ceilings and objects in a room – arriving at different times.

This problem was well-suited to the technology that O’Sullivan and his team had already developed. All they had to do was dust off their previous work and find a way to put their mathematical algorithm on a microchip. Which they did.

Their technology, known as Wireless LAN or WiFi, appeared on the market in 1999 and was made an industry standard. Look at the specs on your laptop and you’ll find IEEE 802.11, the networking standard used on hundreds of millions of devices all over the world.

There are many more stories like this, where fundamental research has led to unexpected applications or whole new industries. Some examples, like this one, are obvious. Others are more subtle but just as impactful.

So, what is my answer to the question “What good is basic research?” It’s a journey that can lead to amazing things we can’t begin to imagine, and the only map we have is curiosity. Isn’t that enough?

Steve Gourlay is a career scientist with a PhD in experimental particle physics. He recently retired after working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Send questions and comments to him at