About two years ago, CERN’s the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) research programme had finally started. Since then, the Earth has not been devoured by an LHC-generated black hole as many feared or hoped. Also, the programme has not yielded any ground-breaking discoveries yet, apart from almost certainly disproving the Higgs boson occurrence in nature (I’m allowed a joke). There’s still time left to get more data from the machine before it’s shut down in the end of 2012 till 2014 for maintenance.
So was it a waste of money, all the billions of euro spent on the LHC?
Some people argue that the whole programme benefits only the boffins who satisfy their curiosity or get off (of course, metaphorically) this nerdy way. Indeed, what an excellent entertainment it is to be a particle physicist, to spend 10-12 hours a day in front of the screen (particularly friendly to your eyes) and go through enormous amount of data, test endless mathematical models and build complex computer algorithms. It’s clearly as much fun as playing War Craft or chatting on Facebook.
Here’s the eye opener. Nope, it’s not that enjoyable, in fact it’s a very hard and demanding job, both intellectually and physically. Only few people can do it, because they have the right type of brains for the job, because they are diligent and most importantly because they feel it’s their CALLING. A lot of those folks, like any other true scientists, enjoy theorising and discussing stuff, constructing and testing new things.
However, the particle physics and any other hardcore science is 99% mundane tasks (like collecting and analysing terabytes of data) and 1% fun. Why making it even more difficult?
But the public does. There’s a lot of pressure on CERN. We demand practical outcomes now, without realising that a path from “bench to product” can span decades if not centuries, especially when it’s about something as fundamental as the quantum nature and origin of mass and energy, or matter in general. We may only be at the very beginning in our understanding of how gravity works. But if we don’t make this first step now, we’ll have to make it eventually in order to progress.
Yes, CERN’s programmes are expensive. But do you think pumping money into war conflicts (read arms industries) or printing and giving away money to further build up the economical bubble (or getting Greece into further debts) is more useful? Or maybe the space programmes are more useful?
We need to think strategically. The world is facing the problems of overpopulation and environmental pollution, threatening to destroy the remaining natural habitats. We need a lot of renewable and clean energy to keep our planet nice and green.
What does it have to do with the LHC you may ask? Did you know that the Internet was designed at CERN? Did you know that when first computers have been generated (by Babbage, Hollerith and Turing, sequentially) no one ever thought that they would enjoy a wide public use and a computer company would become the biggest in the world (Apple, like the fruit, which hit Newton)?
My point is that it’s hard to predict the use of a hardcore science experiment when it is in development.
Who knows what will the LHC scientists come up with? A new way to control nucleosynthesis (in a fusion reactor), which would give us a source of unlimited energy? Maybe they will crack the secret of gravity, which could be very useful in both the transport industries and the fusion power development.
The real secret of the Collider is that it has never really promised to get us access to new dimensions or give us a bunch of new particles to play with. It was to provide the scientists the best possible cutting-edge tool for making even bolder discoveries about our world.
Basic scientists are doing what they are born to do – pushing the boundaries of knowledge a bit further, exploring how things work. It is not up to them but the commercial sector to see practical applications of that research. You can’t invent new things out of nothing. You need to know how nature works on the fundamental level to continue the line of inventions – car->plane-> computer->star-ship->teleporter…
Do you disagree with that? Think twice when you criticise the LHC. The very device you’re using now (a computer) is a result of centuries of scientific work. Think about your grand-grand children and how they may benefit from the scientific progress being made now.