Investments in science worth the risk

October 9, 2008 — by Vijay Menon and Karthik Sreedhara

On Sept. 10, while most Saratogans were just getting into bed, the world’s largest particle accelerator roared to life underneath Geneva, Switzerland. Skeptics thought it might doom the planet, but most scientists saw it for the advance it was.

First some background: The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been described by Newsweek as the “world’s biggest science experiment” at 27 kilometers in length. The LHC will accelerate protons at speeds never before achieved, up to 30 million head on collisions per second, with each collision creating thousands of particles travelling at the 99.99999 percent speed of light.

The LHC was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), with collaboration from scientists from over 100 countries around the world. Planning for this project dates back over a decade.

Some have vehemently opposed the investment into the LHC, claiming various safety concerns and going so far as to suggest that the particle collisions might create doomsday phenomena, like the extinction of the human race due to the creation of microscopic black holes by the machine, but no credence should be given to these unfounded claims.

Two safety reviews performed by CERN and various other experts in the field have repeatedly stated that the LHC carries “no basis for conceivable threat.” The top nuclear scientists in the world have come to the conclusion that there is no threat and the public should take their word for it.

Although many have been skeptical of the investment of time, money and resources into scientific projects such as the LHC, it is certain that the LHC will revolutionize the face of modern particle physics.

The main scientific purpose of the LHC, according to physicists, is to find and confirm the existence of a particle known as the Higgs boson, the only missing piece in the modern theory of matter. The Higgs boson, in simpler terms, is an elementary particle (a particle not made of smaller particles), which gives everything mass. The Standard Model of particle physics, which is the standard explanation of how fundamental forces and elementary particles work, requires the existence of this particle in order to be proven correct.

The stakes are high. If physicists find the Higgs, the Standard Model will be confirmed once and for all. If not, the world of particle physics will be turned on its head forever. Either way, the outcome will be revolutionary.

Although finding the Higgs will be the main purpose behind the LHC, there is much more behind the story. The LHC could further alter the face of modern particle physics in a variety of ways.

The LHC will replicate conditions from the beginning of the earth and give us a greater understanding of the events leading up to the Big Bang. It could teach us what the unknown dark matter that makes up much of the universe is really composed of. It could even lead to the discovery of new dimensions in space-time and different forms of matter. Clearly, the possibilities of what this machine can accomplish are endless.

In addition to the theoretical breakthroughs that the LHC will surely provide, there could also be some practical uses as well. These include improvements in PET (positron electron tomography) scans used to fight cancer and the creation of new methods for demolishing nuclear waste effectively.

The LHC is a welcome investment in science. Considering the benefits of scientific research, it is clear that future similar projects must be supported as well.