Life after the LHC
To someone like me, for whom science is a way of life rather than a job, or simply a passing interest, I shouldn't have been surprised when I heard about the next generation of particle accelerators. Every month, I organise the Birmingham Café Scientifique series of events where we have an invited speaker come in for some pub based banter about their work. This month, our speaker was Dr Nigel Watson from the University of Birmingham and he has one of those great job titles: Particle Physicist. I think he was as surprised as anyone about the standing room only audience that was attracted to the event, and he talked us through the current particle accelerators as well as what the future holds whilst also discussing the subtleties of neutrinos, muons and antimatter.
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has been running (on and off) for around 3 years now and plans for its future usage and upgrades are fully mapped out. When the LHC was first made operational, there were hopes for discoveries that would fundamentally change the way in which we view the world. The amount of raw data that comes out of CERN every second is staggering and has required the development of computing methods such as Grid and Cloud that we are starting to become more familiar with in our non-particle accelerating daily lives, just to try and analyse it. The LHC is big and fast, there is no doubt about that, but as with most technologies, it can always be made better and more powerful. The LHC can accelerate some sub atomic particles at nearly the speed of light, but that is just not fast enough. As Nigel pointed out, when you work on electrons and positrons (the antimatter equivalent of electrons), the more you accelerate them, the more radiation they emit. This means that you have to make massive increases in power to make only modest increases in the speed of the particles.
It is the nature of the next generation of particle accelerators that I find really interesting. The LHC is the largest experiment in the world. Tens of thousands of scientists from over 100 different countries work there throughout the year and the cost of the build was in the region of £6 billion, making it one of, if not the most expensive experiment in the world as well. So how can we spend this much money on something and in only a few very short years be talking about building better ones? One of the audience members rightly asked what his tax dollar buys with the UK's contribution towards the project.
Before I tell you what the answer was, I just need to make a quick point about something. I am not from Birmingham originally, but it has become my home over the last seven years or so that I have worked here. One of the things that made me laugh when I first arrived (and stills makes me chuckle) is how so many things in Birmingham have to be the longest, biggest, this that and the other - you all know exactly what I am talking about: No 11 bus route, canals etc. Well, it would appear that CERN and the LHC team have heard about this record gathering and are trying to steal this accolade. Did you know that the LHC is colder than outer Space? Apparently the background radiation in Space that is left over from the Big Bang is just enough to make it a balmy 3 degrees above absolute zero, whilst the LHC runs at a chilly 2 degrees above absolute zero! I was also under the grossly wrong impression that Space was pretty empty. Apparently though, compared to the vacuum that is created within the LHC, outer Space is filled with matter! I could go on (for about 27km) with other records but there is no denying that the LHC is an incredible achievement of engineering if nothing else.
So what do you get for your tax dollar? Not much really! I could remind you of great inventions like the internet that come from CERN and we would genuinely have to change our lifestyles to cope without that one, but I think it is fair to say that discoveries at CERN are unlikely to change your life. And guess what, the same could be said of pretty much any other scientific discipline as well. Ask someone what benefits come from Space research and it is a fair bet that within the first ten seconds, the words Teflon and Velcro will come out of their mouths. Really, is that the best that we can do from Space research? I hope not because neither of those things were invented as a result of Space research, which is a great shame, because there were many wonderful technologies that did come directly from NASA and others. But that is still not the point! Yes, of course it is nice when there is a direct spin off benefit from scientific research but the goal of research is to discover and understand the world around us, not to make money from it. As Nigel pointed out the other night, if the UK withdrew its approx £60 million investment in CERN that it makes each year, you can guarantee that you won't see any of it being spent on extra nurses, teachers or police officers - or anything else that you might identify as actually improving your life!