Time has an article on what happens when creative thinkers get the opportunity to set their minds free. The article begins at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and ends up as an essay on the old "rivalry" between basic and applied science. Opinions of two of the Institute's researchers are contrasted.
Norwegian mathematician Nils Baas (67) on his work on cancer classification:
I am studying this (cancer classification) out of curiosity. Treatment is a nice benefit, but it shouldn't be the drive.
Russian mathematician Vladimir Voevodsky (47) disagrees:
This kind of attitude is a manifestation of one's own infantility. He also states that he wants to do "math that is useful".
In a way, Voevodsky may have a point. Doing something out of pure curiosity and for fun, it seems kinda infantile. But this sort of infantility is actually equivalent to pure creativity. The creativity that comes from within, and that began in the infantile age and proved so effective that it prevailed all the way to adulthood. It is natural and powerful.
Some people are blessed by having plenty of this source of curiosity. They don't need anything else to justify their science. In contrast, those who are less lucky have to substitute it with something else to drive their research. It can be ideology, or some sense of a noble purpose, desire to contribute to a higher good, sense of duty and obligation, but it can also be fear (e.g. of losing a stable academic job), competition, or lust for fame. I am not sure if these drivers are more "adult" than pure curiosity.
The nice thing is that many of the different drivers may do the job and produce a good science. I know a guy whose important motivation to publish papers is an obsessive fear that his peers may think that he doesn't publish enough. And he is a respected scientist, I like his papers. Another one nourishes his science by believing that everybody else is wrong, and he wants to prove it. Sometimes he turns out to be right. A lot of my colleagues are driven by a mix of testosterone, competitive rush and ambitions. And they produce what seems like important results.
However, amongst all of the different motivations, pure curiosity stands out as the safest, simplest and most transparent one. Ideology can turn out to be a delusion, noble purpose can turn out to be more complex and ambiguous than it seemed, fear can tie up the mind, competition can lead to cheating and animosity, lust for fame corrupts, etc. But most importantly, all of these restrict one's perspective, they always somehow block (or determine) the ways that the mind dares to take. Infantile curiosity has no such side effects.
For this reason basic science is actually more precious (and fragile) than the applied one. Not only it can lead to groundbreaking results (the usual argument of its advocates) - if properly nourished, basic science can be the oasis of unrestricted, ideology-free and highly motivated thinking that is allowed to question and explore anything, even the ideologies of the government itself, the established paradigms, the established tabus, and the depths of the unknown, all out of pure curiosity and with no set boundaries. Even though it may seem infantile at first impression, cultivation of basic science is exactly the opposite of infantile - its existence is in the very foundation of any advanced, open, free, secular and democratic society.