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Why Should We Care About Particles?

  1. Dec 11, 2004 #1
    I was recently reading about the faillure of the SSC project in history class. This project failed because after the cold war the possible spin-offs from the project were deemed insignifigant compared to the massive costs of the project and there were other projects (big biology and condensed matter physics, for example) that had much more promising results at a lower cost. (at least to my knowledge. Any other insight?) As someone interested in physics, I would like to see such a project fully realized. I understand why the government isn't interested in a project that can't promise the weapons but is there something else they are missing? What can high energy physics give to the community (other than a much deeper understanding of the fundamental workings of the universe)? Will there ever be a day where doing "science for the sake of doing science" on such a large scale will recieve the funding it needs?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 11, 2004 #2
    Good question, thefuture. Accelerators are really at the cutting edge of technology because they have to keep up with the theoreticians ! They have a few things to do like finding superpartners and the higgs unlike in older days where people built accelerators not knowing what to expect (at around the 60s), that's when a plethora of hadrons where discovered.

    I think that for one, accelerators may not be exactly for particle physics alone, who knows what other insights can be derived from it. In pre-QCD days, the Euler beta-function was thought of by some guy (can't remember his name) to explain the experimental results of the strong force, and this soon developed into superstring theory. I think that those with the imagination can use accelerator results for further application into either technology or theory.

    As for funding there are a few alternatives

    1. a particle physicist for president.

    Close to impossible.

    2. Financial self-sufficiency in accelerators, finding a way to make money using accelerators.

    you need someone with tons of imagination and practicality.

    3. Cost sharing such as those in european accelerators.

    The most viable way so far.

    Most corporate and government bodies see very little interest in funding the pure sciences, as in science with very remote applications to technology. And neither can we expect them to give us food packages everytime. There are still so many parts of a country to run such as healthcare etc. (which are obviously more pressing).
  4. Dec 11, 2004 #3


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    I think it was Robert Wilson (if I'm not mistaken) who, when asked in a congressional hearing, if the building of a large and expensive particle collider in the US will help in its defense (this was during the middle of the Cold War). His answer was (I paraphrase) "No, it will not defend our nation. But it makes our nation worth defending." Robert Wilson went on to become the first director of Fermilab.

    There is always a major hurdle in convincing anyone why we should invest in pure science for the sake of knowledge alone. If we go simply by the history of science, we can point out many areas of physics which started out having no foreseeable applications (quantum mechanics and special relativity are very clear examples). And yet, now, our world is very much built on the technology born out of these two theories. So unless we believe in all those cheap psychics on TV to tell us the future application of "CP-violation in certain Kaon decay", all that we can go by is to continue making such advancement in knowledge and hope the future will take care of itself.

    I will shift gear slightly and respond to one of my pet peeve that was brought up by misogynisticfeminist. Let us be VERY clear here that "particle accelerators" are NOT synonymous with "particle colliders". A particle accelerators does what the name says, accelerate particles. It doesn't collide these particles. A particle collider, on the other hand, needs a particle accelerator to accelerate the particles in question, and then collide them, either onto a fixed target, or a moving target. Fermilab, CERN, SLAC, KEK, DESY, etc... are all particle collider laboratories. They study particle/high energy physics. Compare those to the synchrotrons centers all over the world that only have particle accelerators to get mainly electrons up to speed and then maintain them in a storage ring (no collision with anything). Your old TV that use CRT tube is also a particle accelerators. And chances are, your doctor may have a particle accelerator to produce intense X-ray either for diagnostic or treatment.

    So consider this as a "cultural lesson" in physics.

    Last edited: Dec 11, 2004
  5. Dec 11, 2004 #4
    hmm my bad zapperz, i myself didn't really know the difference until you said so !!!
  6. Dec 11, 2004 #5
    Something does not add up here.One stupid B 2 bomber cost 2 billion $ and they can not find cash for SCC?
    while Europeans are building beautiful machine leaving Amerficans behind?
    Since when USA is giving up on promising science?
  7. Dec 11, 2004 #6
    Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that just the plans for a super collider (along with its required super accelerator) would probably cost about 2 billion $.

    I remember hearing somewhere that a supercollider would cost several tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars to actually build. In fact, if I remember correctly, the U.S. actually started building one and then backed out after having already spent several billions (or tens of billions) of dollars digging tunnels and designing "super-magnets".

    I forget what the actual numbers were but I do remember that it was a really huge sum of money to complete the project. 115 billion $ comes to mind, but I'm not sure if that's the correct figure.

    That would make a B2 bomber look like a cheap toy.
  8. Dec 12, 2004 #7

    Hans de Vries

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    It was originally budgeted to cost $4 billion but the expectation
    had risen to 3x that when the project was finally canceled.


    Regards, Hans
  9. Dec 12, 2004 #8
    Ok, so I was off by a factor of about 100. :yuck:

    They ought to be spending some of that money on memory improvement techniques. I could sure use the results of that research! :biggrin:
  10. Dec 12, 2004 #9
    HA! You see.
    I was much,much, much, closer to the original figure. :approve:than your 100 billion $ Neutronstar.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2004
  11. Dec 12, 2004 #10


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    i was typing about 20 strings of ranting about US spending on defense and this and that and how it coulda been spent on something else... and then i finally realized something.
  12. Dec 12, 2004 #11
    Ok, so I need a brain transplant. I wonder how much that costs?

    I do know that they've spent over 100 billion $ on the war effort in Iraq, and that number is constantly climbing (some claim that it's closer to $200billion). I suppose they could have built quite a few super accelerators/colliders for that then.
  13. Dec 13, 2004 #12
    What can high energy physics give to the community (other than a much deeper understanding of the fundamental workings of the universe)?

    I would like to question this deeper understanding. Experiments have created a large number of unstable particles and demonstrated what happens to colliding particles; this is like creating a number of vehicles that do not function properly and observing working vehicle collisions, it tells us nothing truely fundamental about vehicle structure: Likewise, we are not one single step further towards understanding the fundamental structure of particles. So far our major achievement (as indicated by other writers) is in making better collisions.

    Efforts to create new stable atoms (to construct new materials) have failed, I suggest largely because experimentors are concerned more about what can be done with fundamental particles than what fundamental particles really are. Perhaps if the politicians (and taxpayers) could be convinced that something really usefull is going to result from a scientific experiment, perhaps the financial support would be forthcomming.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 13, 2004
  14. Dec 13, 2004 #13
    You mean this over the last 15-20 years or so? Probably true, although there are hopes that recent results in the rare kaon decay are not what the SM predicts. There's also the LHC being built at Cern which many hope will give us new insight into the Higgs sector at the very least.
    New stable atoms have not been created, but a lot of technology with commercial applications has resulted as offshots of HEP requirements, the WWW among them. But you're right that HEP does not produce results that directly improve the lives of average people. I look at accomplishments in HEP as having worth in themselves by advancing our knowledge of the most basic principles by which Nature operates.

    Some politicians are actually reasonable. In the words of Pierre Trudeau (former PM of Canada): "I have no idea what a cyclotron is, but I'm sure glad as hell that Canada has one."
  15. Dec 13, 2004 #14
    • An understanding of the non-perturbative regime of QCD, which in fact is really low-energy regime. This is turn might for instance allow us to have a clean nuclear source of energy.
    • The decision on which formalism is the correct one to formulate physics : is it twistor formalism, does it necessary requires non-commutative geometry, are strings effective as a model or really fundamental... many questions.
    • Answer new fundamental questions, such as : what is the number of dimensions of the Universe.

    It is very not fair to ask "what is fundamental research good for". It is especially disregarding all the major technologies that have been developped by those activities, and which are of daily use today, but that nobody could have foreseen. The point is that, those major collaborations, putting together many different physicists from different backgrounds thinking on a large scale project, produce results that cannot be obtained in private plant R&D activities.
  16. Dec 13, 2004 #15


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    I'm sorry, but this is the silliest complain I've heard so far on this. Creating these so-called "unstable" particle IS the whole point! If these damn things are stable, we won't be finding them THAT exotic anymore! Moreover, the whole point in creating them IS to see and study the various channels of their decay, because these ARE where the action is! A particle, sitting there, doing nothing, is BORING! I want to see that rare Kaon decay that exhibits the CP violation. I want to see the decay of the B-meson to find signatures of the top quark! These are NOT vehicles that do not function properly. They ARE functioning properly and ARE what we want to find! These are NOT something we invent. These are stuff that Nature created and behaving the way SHE intended it to.

    And you are also ignorant of the reason why these particles were created and studied in the first place. They themselves are NOT the focus here - it is what they can reveal about the nature of the fundamental interactions is what's important. The focus isn't on them, but rather they are the probe of our universe.

  17. Dec 13, 2004 #16
    I really hope this complete COMPLETE MISUNDERSTANDING of collider physics and, in general, particle physics is not prevalent in the general public. Part of the reason that most students who go to college or university end up having to take science classes, is not necessarily they will use them in their careers but that they can have some idea about the best uses of their tax dollars and be part of the general process. At least that is what I hope some of them are getting out of these classes.
  18. Jan 22, 2005 #17
    I really hope this complete COMPLETE MISUNDERSTANDING of collider physics and, in general, particle physics is not prevalent in the general public.

    As one of the interested general public I would like make it clear that you are missing our point. At present we do not know why atoms and particles have their particular properties or even what those particular properties really are.

    Now you would not expect someone who knows nothing about car parts to build a car without first teaching him about the function of the various parts; but physicist are continueing to build without a clear understanding of what the bits are, and all you are really achieving is a succession of ever smaller pieces. Worse still these pieces vanish before you can even carry out a thorough exmination of them.

    Right from the beginning physicists have ignored work that does not agree with the standard model. As a result they have built up a remarkably accurate predictive (crash) theory that totally fails to tell us how or why the theory works; we are always rebuffed with statements like "learn the (predictive) theories". This refusal to give priority to the question of 'how and why' is what annoys us and we do not see how smashing bits into ever smaller parts or simply learning the predictive theories, offers any hope of answering the 'how and why' question.

    I for one would be delighted if you could explain how you expect your experiments to produce the desired results and not just more vanishingly small particles.
  19. Jan 23, 2005 #18
    Please read ZapperZ's message on the previous page.

    And the question about why these things have their properties is what is being explored. You seem to expect a particle physicist to have the answer before he asks the question. There are some fundamental questions that are going to (hopefully) be answered once the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) comes online at CERN. You also seem to think that what is being currently done in physics is not concerned with the "how and why"... but this is exactly what is being done. Why is the physics community trying to create higher energy colliders? To probe new regimes of physics, to see if there really is a Higgs particle, to try and find out if QCD (Quantum Chromodynamics- the theory that explains the Nuclear Strong Force) is complete or is it simply the low energy limit of some other underlying theory... all questions that are being asked. Now, this is not a fast process. It takes time to sift through all the data collected in these experiments, let alone the time it takes to actually do the experiment. You also seem to think that physicists don't understand what particles consist of and how they interact. That is EXACTLY what the Standard Model does. It explains particle interactions.
    You also seem to think that physics may be able to answer every question asked. It is possible that some of our questions may not be answerable. Such as why a particle has the mass it does. Most physicists assume it is due to the strength of the interaction between the particle and the Higgs boson, but why do they have that exact value. This question may not be answerable and that is ok.

    Now you use the example of the mechanic knowing how are car works, but do you expect the brake technicians who work on your car to understand the microscopic theory of friction? You seem to be very mislead by some notion that physics is not trying to answer the questions of why and how, because you don't know how they are going about the process of attempting to answer the questions. That is why most people, along with myself, will ask you to learn something about it before you start making wild assertations about what is and isn't going on in the world of science. I hope I cleared some things up for you.
  20. Jan 23, 2005 #19


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    Speaking for the moment not as a physicist (because I'm not one), not even as a mathematician (which I am), but merely as a student and problem solver, the exceptional, strange, and unusual cases are often very important for learning and solving problems.
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