COLUMN: Particle physics is worth funding
Any student in an introduction to astronomy course recognizes the strangeness of particle physics. From the wave-particle duality of light, to the mysterious constituents of dark matter, particle physics has repeatedly demonstrated we live in a fascinating universe.
The most promising experiment devised to shed light into particles physics is the Large Hadron Collider, which was temporarily shut down last weekend. The collider is a $13.25 billion tunnel used to smash particles together at near-light speeds located in Geneva, Switzerland, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, according to an article on Forbes.com. The collider will resume operations by 2015 running at even greater energies, according to an article on huffingtonpost.com.
With such a large operation underway, many people have questioned whether the collider is worth funding. Science is a social institution and its relationship to the general public is known to have its tensions, especially within the Midwest.
Many Americans think the answer is no. This is most noted in Texas, where a Superconducting Super Collider was under construction in 1993. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives decided to cancel the operation after $1 billion had already been spent on the Texas collider. Since then, the U.S. is no longer at the forefront of this most exciting field.
So what do physicists hope to achieve with the Geneva collider? It is well known physicists announced last July 4 that the collider has almost certainly detected the long-sought Higgs Boson.
The Higgs Boson is the particle that allows particles, and ultimately us, to exist. The discovery of the Higgs Boson would confirm the existence of the Higgs field, according to a video on scientificamerican.com. The Higgs field acts as an invisible condensate, like water, that effects how particles interact in the medium of space. After the initial big bang, massless particles pervaded the universe at light speed. Shortly after, the Higgs field condensed out, allowing particles to slow down and posses mass.
The discovery of the Higgs Boson was the primary motivation for constructing the collider, as it is the last particle to complete the Standard Model of particle physics, according to another article on scientificamerican.com.
Sounds interesting, but laypersons are not amateur physicists, and want to know the practical benefits of what their dollars are funding.
The difficulty with this reasoning is it ignores how the nature of science operates. Albert Einstein did not anticipate his theories of relativity would play a prominent role in GPS satellites and smartphones. The discovery of quantum mechanics, perhaps the most esoteric of the sciences, would ultimately give rise to conductors and computers. Virtually all of electricity can be traced to research conducted in the 19th century that was thought to have little, if any, practical benefit. Many of the machines found in hospitals such as MRI’s are based upon principles of physics discovered by physicists who had no interest in medicine. In order to properly do science, even the most abstract subjects need and deserve funding.
So what is in store for the collider in 2014? With higher energies, the collider can look for more precise properties regarding the Higgs Boson including the imbalance between matter and anti-matter and its relationship to dark energy — a mysterious repulsive force that increases with distances that comprises 71 percent of the universe. At higher energies, the collider could detect dark matter, extra dimensions and whether gravity has a particle, according to an article on cnn.com.
Case in point: Understanding the basic nature of the world is an exercise of both intrinsic and practical benefit. The collider is a step toward advancing an understanding of the universe and our place within it.
Nathan Cranford is a philosophy senior.