Are Particle Accelerators Worthwhile?

In particle accelerators such as those at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and Fermilab in Chicago, IL, scientists accelerate particles to high speeds with huge amounts of energy, colliding particles, to probe the building blocks of matter – the quarks, bosons, leptons, the neutrinos.

Just recently, scientists at the Tevatron in Fermilab, Chicago believe they have finally found the elusive Higg’s boson, the one member of the standard model of particle physics which, to date, hasn’t yet been found. The Higg’s boson is believed to be the particle which gives particles mass.

Large Hadron Collider

Right next to Geneva airport in Switzerland, sits CERN. It’s a huge particle physics research laboratory with a massive particle accelerator. CERN is funded by the 20 countries which are signatories of the CERN convention.


The picture shows a circular ring which is the particle accelerator at CERN, and Geneva Airport is in the foreground. The Large Hadron Collider, as it is now known as is located about 100m underground and has a circumference of 27km. It even crosses the border between France and Switzerland; several times!

The Large Hadron Collider is set to go through engineering tests next month and to open later this year. It cost around $2.5billion USD to build. Considering that one of the reasons the LHC was built was to look for the Higgs boson, the Europeans will surely be pretty pissed if the Americans pipped them at the post with a fairly old piece of kit.

The Future?

Although the LHC isn’t even yet complete, scientists are already planning upgrades and improvements.

Physicists are already campaigning for a successor to the LHC – the International Linear Collider (ILC). The cost is estimated at $10bn with an aim to develop a Grand Unified Theory of everything combining the forces of nature: electromagnetism, gravity and the nuclear forces.

Is it worth it? 

Though I personally think it’s be great to develop a unified theory, I do wonder whether it’s worthwhile to spend $8.2billion on a particle accelerator. It might tell us a little bit more about why there is so much matter and so little antimatter around, and the conditions in the first seconds of our universe, right after the Big Bang.

But is there any use in knowing that? I certainly understand the desire simply to discover and to find out something, simply for the knowledge. But at the day, how do we benefit from understanding sparticles, muons or string theory?

At the same time, $8.2billion could do so much good elsewhere. Maybe we can develop treatments for cancers or AIDS, which could save millions of lives. We could find a solution for global warming: a problem which will affect each and every one of us, every day.

So I suppose I’d like to put out this question:

Is it worth pouring over $8billion into a project which ultimately will not lead to any practical benefit or technology? Should we be putting so much money into a new particle accelerator when we’ve just built one at great expense, even though it turns out that we may not have needed it after all?

Edit: This article originally incorrectly stated $2bn was spent on the LHC. The actual figure is closer to $10bn according to The Economist. 

17 thoughts on “Are Particle Accelerators Worthwhile?

  1. Although you’ve made a very good point and posed a good question, I think the answer is simply yes. The governments of the countries involved put forward the money towards places like CERN and leave finding cures etc. to businesses.

    If our government decided not to chip in for the some of the costs, I don’t think they’d divert that money towards helping other countries but to our own needs such as defence and public services. Where would you want the money to go – building a particle accelerator or a shiny new ship you’ll never get anything from?

  2. Advancing the race’s knowledge *is* the ultimate goal, not least because you can do it regardless of bodily health. Without it you don’t get as many spin-offs, potentially into short-sighted "human interest" topics such as medical research.

     "Is it worth pouring over $8billion into a project which ultimately will not lead to any practical benefit or technology?"

    Yes; and you’ve not demonstrated that this particular case is one such.

     "At the same time, $8.2billion could do so much good elsewhere. Maybe we can develop treatments for cancers or AIDS, which could save millions of lives."

    Right. The US government has squandered over $1*trillion* on killing people in the illegal invasion of Iraq to date. Which do you think is more likely?

  3. How can you be so sure that it won’t lead to new technologies? I’m sure people said the same thing when they started to develop quantum theory – how can something so small possibly be used? But now they’re beginning to develop quantum computers, quantum encryption and a whole host of other technologies related to quantum theory.

    Maybe 50-100 years down the line we’ll begin to see string computers? 

  4. Just to start off, I’ve made a factual correction to the article above. This article originally incorrectly stated $2bn was spent on the LHC. The actual figure is closer to $10bn according to The Economist.

    I certainly feel that as a race, we should be doing all that we can in order to advance ourselves – learn about our world, solve the problems we face, improve our standard of living. We do, however, have some issues which affect us more than others, and there are many fields of science which are perhaps underfunded and deserve more attention.

    For example, take string theory. It gets so much press and so much funding, but physicists working on alternatives to string theory (e.g. supersymmetry) will find it a lot harder to get funding. How do we ensure that money is fairly distributed?

    I mean we’ve spent $10bn on the LHC, and it is believed that the ILC can be built for $8.2bn, and physicists want it completed rapidly, which would probably add to the cost.

    The SSC is one example of a collider which was cancelled. Was this the right move?

    Where do we draw the line at value for money, and what discoveries would  have to made to justify the spending of $18bn? Could this money be more effectively used in another area of science which is neglected?

    It’s also worth looking at where the money is going these days – a glance through the New Scientist Jobs section will make it clear that all the money these days seems to be diverted towards biological and health sciences. Perhaps physics deserves more funding?

  5. Unlike low enerrgy quantum and particle physics, supercolliders such as the Large Hadron can only find what existed naturally at energies that prevailed about 13.7 billion years ago just after the beginning of the cosmic Big Bang. 

    Thus the findings of such experiments could never serve any practical purpose under present conditions.

     And I’ve found reasons to believe that nothing will be found of much significance for a ‘theory of everything’.

    So that a really significant account that could be called a theory od everything would not be concerned with high energy particles such as the Higgs Boson nor even with unifying the known forces. 

    But  rather there is now enough evidence, including that already described in quantum physics, that only when examined together, can justify and describe enough details of a cause that acts universaly in addition to the forces.  And so that a theory of such a cause and its effect can explain how matter can remain organised out of its subatic parts despite the action of the forces, as well as much else that a physics of the forces alone has been unable to explain.  See my blog.



  6. My neighbor has a partical accelorator that is 16 years old. and hes looking to sell it for $? how much do you think he could get and where would he sell it!?

  7. Strangelet, black hole or wormhole?

    This is a quote from:

    Professor Dr. Otto E. Rössler (winner University of

    Liège Chaos Award and René Descartes Award), Dr. Raj

    Baldev (Director of the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic

    Research) and others are warning of a very real, very

    possible, very present danger to the planet from the

    Large Hadron Collider. Dr. Rössler predicts that a

    single microblackhole could destroy the planet in as

    little and 50 months. His calculations have been

    released for peer review.’ Source:


    (Original interview with Prof. Rössler / German)
    Bing Bang in the tube – does the CERN create black


  8. You know that’s the same thing the King of Portugal, John the II, said to me about getting to India by sailing across the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic). After all, the Kings son had just successfully navigated around the tip of Africa so there really was no need to go west anymore.
    Thankfully, Queen Isabella took a liking to my idea ( I have to say that even though it was Ferdinand that actually convinced her to give me the cash), otherwise we would not be having this conversation.
    Exploration is necessary. While expecting to find one thing (a western sea route to India), I found a whole continent! You never know what will happen.

  9. Well,
    nobody, not even Einstein himself, could think about all the thousands of possible uses of quantum mechanics or general relativity we enjoy dayly. And qm is a science of
    the smallest, relativity the science of the fastest (or heaviest) things thinkable. It was plain basic research at its early time and nobody thought of any practical use.

    But the most valuable argument to spend the money here (my opinion) is: Have you thought about how much it costs us (the world, mankind) to produce, deploy, train people for and use the weapons (machines made to destroy) each year? The LHC is a very large project where many countries cooperate scientifically, and it runs for decades.
    So the yearly costs are more in the range of $1.5-2 bn. The amount of $$ for weapons is about twice this amount EVERY DAY (USA alone spends around $600 bn/year)! Wouldn’t it help the world much more if we spent this money for something more useful?
    The costs of war/weapons usually are *much* higher than the costs of knowledge.

  10. I heard some1 say the money could be used for finding a solution to global warming. You know its funny how people buy into these propagandas, we only contribute to 2-3% of the atmospheric gasses that cause global warming, it’s a naturally ocurring event (i.e. the ice age). Therefor if u want the money to be flushed down the toilet by all means but this partical accelorator could give us great insight into the subatomic world which coud lead to more medical science and even a break through in the ultimate question, why are we here?

  11. Is there anyone out there that can tell me WHAT in particular these machines are good for (i.e. specific types of medical equipment etc.) Because in my opinion and many other people, WHY in Gods name are we spending all this money!!! There are so many that suffer from poverty, illness, desease, etc. Spending such huge amounts of money on a whim that they “might” find an answer to the beginning of the universe is also a massive waste of energy and time! I don’t understand how they get the financial backing for these ideas! What has the human race come to? When we as a people can turn our heads away from all the real NEED in this world and just play with VERY BIG TOYS….It’s obscene! I am completely at a loss………………………..

  12. ha, is it a crt? I wouldn’t buy it for 20 bucks lol, unless I have a screen for it, or its really nice, how do you build custom TV’s anyways? Why would you want too? Well, if we could understand quantum physics more deeply than it might lead to a better understanding of how we can possibly manipulate physics, when you talk about our sun, it is essentially a fusion reactor. Now that’s a huge amount of energy that we cannot recreate. If that’s a huge amount then the energy required at the big bang is enormous. 8 billion? A single Nuclear reactor costs around 4 b, france has alot of those. Anyways who wouldn’t want a jet pack or flying car that runs on principles of quantum physics, travel to distant galaxies, hehe. If we prove parallel universes, well that’s right up there with alien life. hmmmmmm.. oh and lhc doesnt come close to those amounts of energy because its in a small vaccum, which makes it possible to study. I guess what im really trying to say without the jokes is that if you dont have projects like these it is simply hard to get anywhere in quantum physics with the current technology we have. Oh was this supossed to be some kind of yes or no question?

  13. The LHC may help us understand (besides many other things) what gravity really is and how it works. Finding out this worth a lot of money.

    You simply can’t imagine the future value of these researches. The previous “rounds” gave us the fundamentals of modern electonics.

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