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Bessent: What price scientific wonder?

What's a wow worth?

Three times in recent days, scientists announced startling discoveries worthy of that unbridled exclamation of childlike wonder.

With shrinking government all the rage, such moments may come fewer and further between. That would be a shame. Wide-eyed amazement may not be the most cost-effective item on Washington's balance sheet, but it nourishes the spirit and expands the mind.

Consider the entirely new form of life discovered recently in a lake bed near California's Yosemite National Park. It's a bacterium that researchers say feeds on arsenic and, in a trick never seen before, incorporates that often poisonous substance into its DNA.

It's no surprise that some scientists are challenging those findings. We had believed that every form of life was made up of the same six elements - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur - until NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon found one that maybe isn't.

That unassuming little microbe, affectionately known as GFAJ-1, reportedly for "give Felisa a job," has upended what we know about the nature of life by demonstrating its existence as we never imagined it could be. "We've cracked open the door to what's possible for life elsewhere in the universe," Wolfe-Simon told CNN.

Then there's the study that suggests there are three times as many stars in the heavens as we thought, an awesome 300 sextillion. That's a three and 23 zeros. How could we have missed all those points of light?

And how about news of two mysterious bubbles filled with hot, charged gas, erupting from the center of the Milky Way? The previously undetected bubbles - extending north and south from our galaxy's core - are so big that it takes light 25,000 years to travel from one sharp edge to the other.

Doug Finkbeiner, the project's lead researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, readily admits he doesn't really know what these bubble things are yet, or their origin. One theory is they're the product of a gigantic belch from the black hole that sits at the center of the galaxy. "This was something that was unexpected. It's really an understand-our-universe-and-our-place-in-it kind of thing," he said.

In fact we don't immediately know what to make of most strange and exciting discoveries. That's what makes them strange and exciting. But we do know that the research that leads us to them costs money.

President Barack Obama took office promising to increase the $140 billion yearly federal investment in scientific research. Now he says he'll freeze all domestic discretionary spending and Republicans promise actual cuts.

Unfortunately, science is an easy target once you move beyond medical research and similar, more grounded pursuits. It's hard for arsenic-eating bacteria and galactic energy belches to compete for money with law enforcement and road repairs. And it's admittedly hard to see how such discoveries will help anybody turn a profit - though they may contain the seeds of future economic growth. You never know.

That's the thing about nature. As it reveals its mysteries, one tantalizing tidbit at a time, it often clues us in that what we're convinced we know absolutely isn't necessarily so. There's a lesson in that.

With the nation divided into warring ideological camps over so many things, we should all take a breath and entertain, for a moment, the possibility that when we're most certain we're right, something could come along and upend what we think we know.

So, what's a little humility worth?


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