The Value of Particle Colliders, Pretty Space Pictures and Perseverance

value of theoretical research 06
value of theoretical research 06

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In the fiscal year 2022, USA’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) received a total budget of USD 3.2 billion. Depending on your point of reference, this could either be a whopping or minute sum of money for the rather colossal endeavour of developing clean energy. Either way, I would certainly say that this is money well spent, as opposed to, say, the much larger military budget. From the light bulb, to the telephone, to penicillin, science has clearly been an infinitely useful tool for humanity, the source of millions of enhancements and improvements to our lives. 

As we progress economically, scientifically and technologically, the scale of science has been increasing exponentially. Particle detectors have gone from simple tabletop cloud chambers to the 7000 tonne ATLAS detector in the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) under Geneva. The growth is incredible, and so is the cost—the LHC cost about USD 4.75 billion. Granted, this budget was used over 10 years of construction from 1998 to 2008, but in comparison to this year’s EERE budget, it’s still certainly a lot of money.

So what does the LHC actually do? As a Physics Major, I could go on about how it verifies the Standard Model, our best theory on the nature of the universe, is an engineering marvel, pushes the boundaries of measurement and detection further than ever before, and other things that don’t mean all that much to most people. Perhaps to the layman, it might be, at most, just that thing that found that particle. A USD 4 billion machine to find a…thing

Obviously, there are reservations about spending billions of dollars on science that seems to have no benefit to humanity except to stroke the egos of some scientists, and maybe politicians too. Clearly, there are better places for taxpayer dollars to go to, like world hunger, clean water, climate change, panda conservation, et cetera ad infinitum. Even maybe just cash handouts for fun. 

This is a sentiment that has been reflected to me by many, even my own mother. Whenever I tell her about a research topic I’m currently working on or interested in, the inevitable questions come: “How do you apply it?” “What’s the use?” “Is there an end product?” “Will people buy it?” No, detecting dark matter won’t help anybody do anything or live easier whatsoever. Imaging a black hole makes no progress towards relieving world hunger. Finding out how neutrinos have mass doesn’t produce a marketable product. In other words, a lot of research, especially in Physics, is not at all productive, and is, perhaps, a waste of time, money and resources.

It is, of course, arguable that all this fundamental research can expose flaws in our current theories and understandings of the universe, leading to incredibly productive paradigm shifts. However, more likely than not, many of these areas of research won’t lead to anything quite so groundbreaking. They are, admittedly, to the large majority of people, completely unproductive.

In light of all this, why do we still splurge on research? 

The search for reason and order is something that has remained consistent throughout almost every human civilisation at every point in history. From myths of gods bringing rain, such as Zeus, for the Greeks, or Yu Shi, for the Chinese, and countless others, to the numerical Mesopotamian astronomy, which predicted eclipses and planetary trajectories, there is no shortage of evidence for humanity’s pursuit to understand the fundamental workings of the universe. A particular interest in astronomy and the cosmos can be seen in multiple cultures, such as the Greeks and Persians. This is, perhaps, not surprising to anybody. What holds any larger wonder or mystery than gazing into the seemingly infinite abyss of space? The beauty in finding the inner workings of the celestial bodies was enough for many cultures to attach divine meaning to it, giving astronomers and astrologers elevated status in their societies. This reverence for science didn’t stop with astronomy, and Greek philosophers and mathematicians, such as Aristotle, who studied topics such as the fundamental makeup of the universe, were appointed as teachers to kings. 

Science is obviously a human endeavour, something that has been pursued as long as we have existed, very much in the same way as art. However, over time, not only has science gotten bigger and more expensive, but our social values have changed. With the rise of capitalism, productiveness has been put on a pedestal. Our career comes first, and only when that’s settled can we find scraps of time enjoying our useless little hobbies. Despite this, criticisms of capitalism are only increasing, as we find that our little human passions deserve more of our time and attention, over chasing after being a more and more efficient production and money machine. These ventures must have, although not economic, some significant value to us. 

Granted, our budget, both in terms of money and resources, is limited, and there is no shortage of causes to put it to. Naturally, there are many real global issues that deserve and require far more attention than scientists’ grandiose dreams. However, although billions of dollars on scientific research seems like a huge sum of money, with an incredible opportunity cost towards more deserving causes, Science as a category, which excludes areas such as Energy & Environment and Medicare & Health, made up only 0.54% of the total US federal spending in 2021, nowhere near enough to create a significant dent in the budget of other categories such as healthcare, which took up over 22% of federal spending. Surely we deserve this much.

Humanity as a collective is, arguably, an advanced civilization. Yes, there are communities lagging behind in access to many of these advances, and we should help them, but this should not stop us from continuing our pursuit of higher needs past that of basic physiological needs. We deserve to be more than production machines. We deserve our art, our philosophies, our science. We deserve our pretty pictures of deep space, our ventures into Mars, our little peeks into the smallest details of the universe, and so much more.