Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Beauty of the Beast

So it has finally happened. The great beast under the earth sprang to life this November and protons are hurtling around it at record breaking speeds. And in bunches too. Not just in single beams. The Large Hadron Collider is now the fastest in the world and this is only the beginning. Not only in terms of the universe and how it began, but also meaning the biggest experiment in the world. It has been a journey 25 years in the making, in which the lives and minds of some of the world's greatest scientists, engineers and technicians have been poured into this tunnel under the earth. As one CERN personnel observes, 'All our lives and energy have been subjugated to the beast. We have to feed the beast. It is unthinkable that it fails. If it does, can you imagine the impact it will have on all of us who have devoted our lives to it? It will be as if for nothing.'

It is no exaggeration to say that a whole generation of particle physicists and engineers will be lost if the world's greatest experimental apparatus fails. But that is not all there is at stake. As the LHC ramps up to yet more record-breaking power and new collisions in the New Year, and as the data-deluge breaks all records too, what really is at stake is the future of science itself. Not just particle physics. But all science and the whole quest for knowledge for its own sake. After all, what is the immediate result and application of knowing how and why matter won the battle that critical nano-second 14 million years ago? There is no direct instantaneous application other than the beauty of knowledge itself. And this knowledge won't immediately cure cancer or solve climate change. It might lead in the future to new understanding which may be applied to solve these problems which are politically centre stage and which therefore attract funding. But the relevance may not be for another generation. This is not quick fix knowledge with instant results. The UK government, with its £55 million annual contribution, is rumoured to be closely watching what happens with the LHC, keen to divert the funding elsewhere in an economy in crisis. But so far, it is bravely and resolutely supporting the ultimate Enlightenment project, as the floods of data start pouring in.

This is the beauty of the beast - the human capacity to imagine and create new knowledge to understand existence. Why did matter win over anti-matter? Why do we have star dust in our bones? Why is matter 80 per cent empty? In the end it is also what particle physics is about and why particle physicists seem to be the most alive and curious people about living you will ever encounter. After all, they are perhaps the ultimate definition of what it is to be human - to imagine, to create and to know.

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