Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is spending huge money on high energy physics expt justified?

  1. Mar 12, 2012 #1
    I am asking this question here rather than in some other forum assuming most of those interested in HEP visit this forum.

    I personally believe that high energy physics attempts to find answers to some of the most fundamental questions in nature and hence spending huge amount of money for this is justified. But there are others who strongly believe that the money should be rather used for other researches (like materials science, lasers, biotechnology etc.) What will your be to such people?

    (We should keep in mind that nations spend huge amount for military purpose etc. If we add the total amount worldwide then it should be much smaller than what is spent for HEP researches.)
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 13, 2012 #2
    This is a delicate question, because it takes a fair amount of knowledge, technical and historial, to appreciate the contributions of fundamental science to society as a whole. And even with some knowledge, this question of yours is a policial one, I would say a moral question. We can never know what will sprout out of the collaboration of thousands of scientists with various skills uniting their efforts towards one same goal, without monetary or personal gain as a reward. They just want to write one chapter, maybe one sentence or perhaps just one letter, in a universal book which is a legacy from one generation to another, and which an alien species could use to judge our value as intelligent beings. Because of this perspective, them physicists often want their single letter to be the most beautiful one in the book. So it's quite an amazing book in the end.

    In fact, we can only rely on history to convey the importance of nourishing curiosity, almost as an art form which extracts us from our human condition. It may sound emphatic, but I truly believe that we cannot overemphasize this importance, despite the fact that a partial historical list is barely an acceptable argument, let alone convincing.

    So here goes...

    Time and again, fundamental discoveries first appeared completely useless. Take one of the first "research institutes" : Uraniborg where hundreds of people would work for Tycho Brahe to collect entire libraries of data on planetary orbits. They had to perfect the manufacturing processes of paper to write the results down (direct societal impact), and this data became crucial in establishing Kepler empirical laws, the seed for Newton's fundamental laws (very long term deep societal impact).

    Take Faraday's quote when asked (by the ministry of finance) the practical value of electricity in 1850 : "One day sir, you may tax it".

    Plank's discovery of the quanta from studying an anomaly in the theory for the spectrum of a oven (who would fund this research ?) leads to quantum mechanics, with innumerable consequences later enables solid states physics and the computers we converse with today. Take the development of internet protocols at CERN to exchange large amounts of data for statistical analysis...

    Einstein's original work on relativity not being wildly recognized at first because considered to be too philosophical, eventually leading to nuclear weapons and power plants. Whether we favor their use or not, one must still recognize their essential social role. And there is much more to Einstein's work, the list would go on and on, everybody carrying a GPS in their pocket and not even buying a map anymore.

    All medical imaging devices come from fundamental research in physics. The same community which builds high energy physics magnets are the only people able to develop the powerful superconducting magnets with such incredible uniformity that they enable us to picture the dynamics of neural processes (literally pictures at the level of brain cells).

    The list goes on and on...

    Without the support to fundamental research, our world would have been very different. We would always proceed by trial and error, pass to the next generation a bunch of unjustified traditions which would change several times per century, progress would be erratic and painstakingly slow. To escape this fate and Plato's cave is the value of the universal book. We should be grateful to sit on the shoulders of scientific giants, we should value natural curiosity as one of the defining traits of human societies. From the perspective of somebody embracing this moral, one should think of what happened during the last 150 years, accept that we cannot but assume our future role of ancestors and enable the world our descendants deserve.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2012
  4. Mar 19, 2012 #3
    In April 1969, Robert R. Wilson was asked by the Atomic Energy Commission why the U. S. Government should spend $300 million on a new particle accelerator in Illinois (eventually named Fermilab). Here is what Robert Wilson said:

    SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

    DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

    DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

    SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

    DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

    It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Don't be sorry for it.

    DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

    DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

    In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook