Is the LHC a waste of money?

(Guardian)

It’s Friday evening in the local pub. All is well with the world. Then the juke-box kicks in and starts to play Muse’s “Black holes and Revelations”. Working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and following the media coverage of how it will supposedly create a black hole and destroy the world, I have acquired a frightened Pavlovian response to any mention of the space-bound phenomenon. The awkward questions follow, as they always do: “How can we justify spending billions on your black hole apocalypse machine when we have so many more pressing concerns like global warming, the impending energy crisis, and overpopulation?”. Usually I can deflect the question with a joke; after all, Brian Cox needed a job after the break-up of D-Ream, and Switzerland needs a more serious image than clock, cheese, and chocolate maker. But when the question was asked in earnest, I found that I had no response beyond some blustering about ‘pioneering human spirit’. An awkward, lonely, soul-searching evening followed; had I wasted the last 8 years of my life? Is the LHC a waste of money? Upon further reflection, there are thankfully many reasons why collaborative research projects like the LHC may be not only worthwhile, but also indispensable. Einstein once said: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”. In the first decades of the twentieth century Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and others, puzzling over and researching the discrete nature of matter, formulated quantum physics. At the time, they had no idea that their theories would be instrumental in the production of semi-conductors, which power all the electronic gadgets we now rely upon. Without quantum mechanics I wouldn’t even be able to email this article for consideration; I’d have to go to the post office and buy an envelope and a stamp – heaven forbid! Who can say what other everyday wonders may come from understanding our universe better through projects like the LHC? “Don’t be so quick to deal out […] judgement, even the very wisest cannot see all ends.” Gandalf warned us in The Lord of the Rings; kind of fitting given the scope and geometry of the LHC. Pushing the extreme boundaries of modern scientific understanding creates a need for novel technological solutions, which provide tangible commercial benefits. The guiding of two beams of invisible, microscopic, charged particles around a twenty-seven kilometre track at -273 degrees Celsius in complete vacuum, forcing them to collide at specially designated points, and then processing the resulting collision debris is as difficult as it sounds! It calls for often literal - quantum leaps in the fields of material science, electronics, and information technology, which impact the world around us and which you can research at your own leisure thanks to another CERN distributed data-processing invention; Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. One of the most promising spin-off technologies from CERN is proton therapy. The engineering solutions used to guide the LHC beams can be used to target previously untreatable cancers of the brain and neck, without harming surrounding tissue. It is this cross-pollination between seemingly disparate fields

that is the true strength of collaborative research projects like the LHC. BernersLee himself noted that ‘a place like CERN, where enthusiastic experts congregate from all over the world, creates a unique, innovative atmosphere in which the boundaries of technology are pushed as a matter of course.’ Perhaps this collaborative nature is not only beneficial but essential to solving the world crises my friend initially highlighted. As science and society have become increasingly complex, and the problems that face our planet have become increasingly diffuse, so scientists and other experts have become increasingly specialised. The whole energy demand of the planet can be satisfied by one million square kilometres of solar panels in the Sahara desert. Such a solution took me a couple of minutes to formulate, but would require experts in electronics, renewable technologies, and even the political and economic sciences to realise. Not to mention someone with enough common sense to realise we need an alternative solution for when night falls in the Sahara! The era of the personal, interdisciplinary genius may be over. Perhaps the next genius, and the next solution to looming global crises will come from scientific collaboration; a hivemind drawing upon the specific skills of its members to understand complex problems, and effect real change. I know I certainly wouldn’t mind being referred to as one neuron of the next Albert Einstein! This prospect means that we all have a part to play by actively seeking to understand the far-reaching positive impacts of scientific collaboration. With large-scale collaborative projects like the Mars Rover, the Kepler Space Telescope and the LHC, we need to stop worrying about the black holes and start enjoying the revelations.

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