Friday, September 12, 2008

Worth the Cost? YES!

Well, as mentioned before, the LHC is now accelerating particles about, with collisions scheduled for late October. However, as cool as it is to have particle moving at 99.9999999% the speed of light in tubes colder than space (below 2 degrees Kelvin), there are people wondering about the utility of the project. The cost has been estimated to be between 3 and 7 billion euro (say $5-10 billion), which is quite large. I sure would like to have that sort of cash.

So, there have been people asking these questions very publicly.

Brian Cox of CERN certainly made some good points, but perhaps I can also say a few things since I don't have to fit into a time slot.

Firstly, understanding the fundamentals of physics is helpful for any future scientific and practical innovation. Who could possibly have thought of the day-to-day requirements of atomic theory and relativity at the turn of the century. The structure of an atom, if it was a sort of jelly, or a solar system model, or something more exotic--no matter which, if someone asked what sort of impact this would have on a person's life, I doubt Rutherford could have answered such a question. However, with an understanding of atomic theory, we have extremely accurate clocks, electricity, smoke detectors, chemotherapy, and more. Innovations in computers would have been difficult, if not impossible, without an understanding of the quantum realm, stuff that would have seemed like intellectual masturbation in the 1920s, but now is a necessity for the modern world. And as for Einstein's theories, if humans did not understand general relativity GPS satellites would not be able to work--they would be off by miles. There is no way any of these great scientists could have known about the particle applications of their theories in the future.

The same can and should be said of high energy particle physics. Having a more complete theory of the subatomic universe can only be helpful in the future. Who knows what sorts of things make be useful in having strange quarks or particles that only work with the weak nuclear force. Or imagine that we learn enough about the world of force particles that we can manipulate them. If we could weaken gravity or decrease the mass of objects, space travel would be easy. If we could somehow weaken the repulsion between nuclei of atoms, fusion energy would be a snap. Now, no one knows if any of these sorts of things are possible. But how can we found out unless we do the research?

As for the expense, the other person in the video, David King, mentioned using the money for trying to cure cancer. Well, he does realize that this is not an either-or situation. Besides, the US alone has spend about $200 billion since 1971, and other nations have major investments in this area as well. Progress has been made, but no cure has come. As for global warming, the cost for getting all vehicles to be clean, power stations to be clean, etc., that could cost trillions of dollars. The US uses about 29000 billion kWh, and the cost of nuke power is $2000 per kWh, so the cost is huge on this front. $10 billion is nothing by comparison. Now, this is not to say that combating global climate change isn't worth while. What the problem is is the false dichotomy--this is not an either-or situation, nor is it that if a nation funds CERN it cannot fight cancer or help evade further change to the climate. Nor does it mean that nations cannot feed the poor, heal the sick, and so on. Besides, if one really wants to look at things that are expensive, look at the US military budget.

The annual budget for the US military is over $400 billion--that's at least 40 CERNs a year, and that $10 billion for CERN is over several years. Heck, a single B2 stealth bomber costs around $2 billion, and there are 21 of them. The program the the F22 Raptor, America's newest air fighter, costs over $60 billion, and no nation is anywhere near competing with it at this time, nor in the near future (Russia' plane is far away, and they are not so hostile, nor insane). Now, I'm a fan of national security, secure sovereignty of my home country, and I think the things the military has are hyper-awesome, but the money funneled into this area is far and away more than any science experiment or research project. (And need I remind the US government, it was research into theoretical physics that lead to the invention that helped end of the Second World War, though at a terrible cost of human life?)

So, the whole cost question, when in proper context, it nothing to be so worried about. CERN is not taking away the ability to research new medicines and treatments. Besides, it is pharmaceutical companies that are failing us right now for not researching the creation of new antibiotics; if germs become immune to all antibiotics (and there are some!), how shall we defend ourselves from disease? Of course, drug companies invest in what is profitable, so there are tens of penis pills out there. I feel for the guy with erectile dysfunction, but is this really more important than, say, curing cancer or preventing the next super-bug from causing a terrible pandemic? So, if we were to go by shear economic desires, we would all have great sex but short lifespans.

Investments have to be more forward thinking than what sells or is desired at the moment. I know that curing disease and preventing world climate disasters are forward-thinking, but usually people want something practical in the hear and now. Heck, many people are uninteresting in climate change because it's in the future. What people want obviously is not the best way to go about giving the people they want. Passions are whimsical, ephemeral, and never satisfied. Investments in research should of course at least have some potential for giving something back, but always thinking towards a dollars in-dollars out approach does not lead to the discoveries that can produce entire new industries.

Further, consider that there are always spin-offs that come about when there is a major investment in science projects. The Apollo program gave use better computers and Velcro. CERN was the driving force for the creation of the Internet. As mentioned in the video, the cooling systems at the LHC are to be utilized in the research in producing electricity from fusion. Who can say what things can come about because of the work in these areas?

Now, some will argue that these sorts of innovations would have been brought about anyways. This always seems to be odd to me. After all, does this mean that Newton does not deserve credit for formulating his laws of motion because someone else would have done it eventually? By this line of thinking, no one ever deserves much credit for anything. Such nihilism is not worth further dissection.

Finally, there is the human factor. Understanding the very fabric of space, the essence of matter and energy, to ability to be familiar with and manipulate time and possibly extra dimensions--knowing where our cosmos has come from, where it is going, where we fit in. Are these not the sorts of questions we want answered? Is not an answer to these sorts of things a profit from investment, a kick-back that is eternal and wholesome? If such a search is not moving to the very soul of a person, I don't know what is.

Science has brought us amazing realizations. Astronomy and physics has shown us that we are all created from the same matter, atoms forged in the furnaces of stars over eons of time, distributed throughout the galaxy. Is not realizing that we are star stuff one of the ways of seeing our connection to the cosmos, to see we are a part of it, not separate? When you look into the Orion Nebula, you can see the collapse of clouds of gas and dust, the creation of stars and planetary systems. You can witness Creation, the formation of new worlds, new earths, new intelligences to be. Humans have always tied themselves to the workings of the Cosmos. The Sun tells us when to be awake and to sleep. The rising of stars told our ancestors when to plant, when to harvest, when to hunt, and how to navigate. The phases of the moon helped in timing the feminine cycles, and the setting and rising of planets and stars led the imaginations of cultures to see death and rebirth as a part of the universe. Our life beyond life has been with the stars--the rising sun was the resurrection, the stars were ancestors or angels or gods, the Milky Way was their path. Modern astronomy has brought us the life and death of stars, along with the realization that death leads to new life. When humans understand that this is the world we live in, they, no, we can place realize what we are and where we are going. It cannot be done with ignorance or looking only at a particular problem to be solved. The understanding of life takes a lifetime.

And physics is one of the ways to see where were are in the world. The fundamental particles are what we are made of, and knowing their origins and fate guides the answer to our own. The only other science that I would dare say help us understand out place as well as astronomy/physics would be biology. And what amazing finds have been found there!

The cost of CERN is large in the short-term, but its cost in comparison to other projects is not so amazing, and its long-term benefits are inestimable. I won't advocating giving all we have to this one project, but remember that this investment is in our very understanding of everything, including ourselves. (Perhaps its such discovery that is really scaring people--who we are can be frightening.)

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