Monday, 16 July 2012

Did you think I was going to shut up about the Higgs? You were wrong.

In this very month, the wonderful nerds at CERN announced the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson particle, for which they have been searching since the construction of the Large Hadron Collider, in order to confirm or debunk the Standard Model of the universe. They found it (more or less). The Standard Model works – the mathematics of it fit our universe in a way that explains it in a rather complex but understandable model. The Higgs boson was the last piece of the puzzle and now we have reasonable evidence that it exists.

At this point, it depresses me that a lot of people now say “So what?”

I heard some innocent person – who was actually trying to defend the expense and effort put into this research – reply “Well, because they were curious. They just wanted to know.”

And, to some extent, that is true, but that response could be said of any and all science and it strips it down into its absolute barest motive. There is no doubting that curiosity is at the base of every scientific experiment, every theory and deep in the heart of every person who has ever been interested in anything even remotely scientific. But to say that all of CERN and everything it has achieved has been only to satisfy the curiosity of a handful of nerds is to massively devalue all that it has done and all the benefits it has bestowed upon civilisation.

If you ask any random person on the street what CERN has achieved in its lifetime, they probably will not be able to give you an answer, unless by some tiny chance you asked someone as nerdy as I am. You might get someone moaning about how much it cost. But that is relative and, when you think about what it actually has achieved, you realise that all the money gone into it is actually piss in the ocean.

The science budget in most western countries is miniscule when you think about how much governments waste on other rubbish. Take, for instance, the now quite famous government spending chart from The Guardian in 2008, which shows quite clearly how more than £620.6 billion was divided between all the things for which the government wanted to pay. All money put towards science came under the heading “Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills”, which received, of all that money, only £3.3 billion. That £3.3 billion includes all medical research, space exploration, developments in technology and engineering as well as things like arts and humanities that need money to flourish and come under the same heading. That tiny fraction of government funds is not a lot of money, especially when you consider that science pays for itself sooner or later. The Apollo programme, for example, paid for itself fourteen times over. That means that for every $1 that the American government invested in the project, it put $14 back into the economy. On average, the American government earns 700% profit on money put towards NASA. Research in quantum physics led us to a better understanding of the way our world works; scientists exploited that to create the transistor, which is the building block of pretty much all modern technology, including phones, radios and computers. Pretty much any development in the understanding of how our universe works will lead to more improvements like this in our lives.

CERN has been around since the 1950s and the LHC was built between 1998 and 2008. Everyone – particularly those who have seen either my FaceBook page or Twitter feed – knows its most recent news, but many more of its achievements seem to have been completely forgot. The progressive achievements in particle physics are numerous; between 1973 and 2012 they found far more than just the Higgs boson. In 1984, two CERN physicists were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work there and the discovery of the W and Z bosons. And to anyone who says that now that the Higgs has been found that the LHC is now worthless and no more than a blight on the Swiss landscape, you’re wrong. It is now being used to study dark matter, one of the most mysterious things in physics, and could tell us more about the universe than any discovery in the history of science if its work in the future is half as successful as it has been so far.

The fact is that there are loads of things going on at CERN, but the discovery of the Higgs boson particle is the only one that has really been publicised because of the massive machine it took to find it. The real problem with these achievements is that they only really have relevance to those who know how to use them, those physicists who care about finding the answers and confirming models of the universe. But these are quite a small minority of the people; most people will happily take advantage of all these developments without really caring how or why it works. But that is not to say that these findings do not have a huge impact on your life.

I can guarantee that everyone reading this has used – in fact is using right now – the biggest thing to come out of CERN. I would very much like to dither for a while and let you squirm or maybe get a bit defensive and insist that of course you have not used this thing that is so popular because of course you would know that it comes from CERN if it was that amazing and that big a part of your life. But, actually, it is pretty amazing and you definitely use it.

A project called ENQUIRE was born in CERN in the late 1980s. It was based on the concept of hypertext and was designed so that researchers could share information from different parts of the word. In 1993, the World Wide Web became free and available to everyone and anyone.
No matter what else it does, CERN will always be the birthplace of the Internet. Think of all the money that has been saved and made because of the Internet, both by independent business, people and even governments and huge corporations. Think of everything that is on the Internet that otherwise humanity would not have. Forget the spam and the porn and the whining teenagrs complaining on FaceBook about how much they hate life even though they are luckier than any other generation. Think about how easy it is to share information, or to start up a business. Forget that without YouTube there would be no Justin Bieber and remember that without YouTube there would be no TED talks. Think about having a forum for your opinion and your thoughts no matter who you are or what you think. Think about a freedom of debate and a simple and easy way to connect with people just like you, no matter where they are in the world. Think about having global news at your fingertips whenever you want it and think about how seeing a silly reblogged meme face can make your whole day.

Think about the hypocrisy of some nutter blogging or tweeting about how the LHC is unnecessary and CERN is a waste of money and effort.

Now thank CERN for providing you with such an incredible gift given free to the rest of mankind and stop calling it the ‘God particle’.

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