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High energy, higher costs

26 July 2010

one black mass of jigs and jimjams...

Based on your own experience, complete the following sentence found on a promotional website: “There can be no doubt that Paris is the place to be in summer 2010 for anyone interested in…”.

If your excited answer includes Physics Beyond the Standard Model (with capital letters) you’re probably reading this on a smartphone as you wait for French president Nicolas Sarkozy to open the 35th International Conference on High Energy Physics, or ICHEP.

What excites physicists rarely gets a mention outside scholarly circles, but the international media have devoted a fair amount of space to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Partly this is because of entertaining claims that the LHC would produce mini black holes that would transform the Alps into a gigantic Swiss cheese before munching their way through the rest of the planet. Citizens against the LHC even tried to stop the collider experiments in court.

 A more common objection, and one that doesn’t need any knowledge of physics to grasp, is that projects like these are a waste of money . That was the view of the US Congress in 1993 when they stopped funding the Superconducting Supercollider. The LHC’s predecessor would have been three times more powerful, but it would also have been four or five times more expensive than the LHC’s $6 billion, and with the end of the Cold War, a favourite argument for the need to fund nuclear physics evaporated.

So what are the taxpayers’ billions being spent on? The sound-bite friendly answer is the “God particle”, or Higgs boson. The Standard Model does not include gravity and some of its features are arbitrary and unexplained. To overcome these shortcomings, physicists study symmetry, which in this context means that certain features observed in a system remain unchanged even following a transformation, such as rotation.

 Theory predicted the existence of special particles to ensure this symmetry, and over the past few decades experiments have confirmed the predictions in collisions of particles at ever-higher energies. The Higgs boson is a major piece of the puzzle. According to the Standard Model, elementary particles get their mass by colliding with the Higgs particle, and if it exists, the power of the LHC is needed to detect it. If it doesn’t exist, high-energy physics will have to rethink its fundamentals.   

Apart from giving insights into the origin of mass, LHC experiments study the “dark matter” that 96% of the Universe (and you and I) are made of, the secrets of the Big Bang, antimatter, and hidden dimensions of space.

So what? Couldn’t the billions be spent on something relevant to more pressing problems? The short answer of course is “yes”, but that would miss the point of how science works. Science’s goal is not to apply knowledge and know-how to creating useful things – that’s what technology does. Science creates the knowledge.  The quantum effects physicists study are now an important parameter in designing digital cameras for instance (this post gives other examples).

The lack of understanding of what science is and how it works is due in part to the education system, but suspicion of science, and hostility towards it, is partly the scientists’ own fault. As the OECD Global Science Forum points out, “dialogue” is too often seen as simply improving the public’s understanding of science, rather than listening to what the public has to say.

Useful links

OECD work on science and innovation

Encouraging Student Interest in Science and Technology Studies

PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World

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