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.
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.