Thursday, 5 July 2012

We're going on Higgs hunt

We're going on Higgs hunt,
Going to catch a big one!
I'm not scared - been here before.

And haven't we just. With rumours flying wildly that the discovery of the existence of the Higgs boson (or that nautical favourite, the Higgs bosun as some members of the press will unerringly refer to it) would be announced from CERN yesterday morning (and in the end it was, sort of), it was fascinating to see the US Tevatron team rushing in with a non-announcement earlier in the week that they might have seen something that might be significant.

This is ironic in a way, because the US should have been here first with the heavy guns. The Superconducting Super Collider was going to be the machine that finally laid the is-it-isn't-it saga to rest on the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the God particle. After spending around 2 billion dollars on it, funding was pulled when the option was to either continue this or the US contribution to the International Space Station (which, incidentally, has much less scientific benefit). Now the European Large Hadron Collider, which interestingly hasn't cost hugely more than had already been spent on the SSC, has delivered the goods.

Yesterday we were bombarded with the Higgs on the news - this is the sort of science news that makes the mainstream, though it usually gets the non-science journalists in a twist as they try to explain with limited success what a Higgs boson is (or isn't). And inevitably there was some muttering about whether we should be spending all that money on pure scientific research.

A frequent argument in support is spin-offs. Look at all the benefits we've got, they say. This is actually often a weak argument. Admittedly pure quantum physics research led us to electronics (I was amused to hear a particle physicist say that electronics was a spin-off of particle physics rather than quantum physics), and CERN has already given us the world wide web, but this isn't really the right argument. Also it can be mis-deployed. Look at NASA, with a budget last year of around £12 billion. Well, they've given us, erm teflon, haven't they? Well, no. It was discovered long before NASA existed, and its first big commercial use was by a Frenchman in Tefal frying pans. Okay, well, there was velcro, wasn't there? Well, no. That was also invented long before NASA existed. By a Swiss guy. About the best you can do for NASA is memory foam mattresses.

(Please don't tell me NASA was responsible for the microcomputer - development of that was driven by commercial pressures, not one-off uses.)

However, I'd say that focussing on spin-offs misses the point. The circa £2.6 billion spent on the LHC is worth spending for pure science, for the discovery, for the wonder. Let's put it in perspective. The UK contribution to CERN is around £95 million a year, of which just over a third is direct to the LHC. Compare that with the UK's international aid budget where we happily spend over £9 billion - indubitably more than £95 million of that goes into back pockets of dictators and corrupt officials. Or even our arts budget at over £1 billion helping subsidise opera houses and knit-your-own-yoghurt whale hugging seminars. By comparison £34 million or so a year on the LHC to help discover the mechanism of the universe seems a very small price to pay indeed.

Introductory verse with HT to Michael Rosen
Image from Wikipedia

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