CERN’s Large Hadron Collider continues to take many by awe and surprise.
For those of you who are awestruck by the size of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Geneva, and its astronomical budgets, here are some particles for thought. The scale and budget of some similar Big Science projects either underway, or on the drawing board, could leave you gasping.
- US space agency NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, estimated to cost $10 billion, would help scientists study the universe for the first stars and galaxies that ever emerged.
- Canadian scientists are spending another $10 billion on the construction of the world’s largest undersea observatory to understand life in depths no man has ever ventured before.
- A $6.7 billion Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider – you can call it a mega time machine – is being built on Long Island, USA, to recreate conditions that existed during the first millionth of a second of the Big Bang using particle collisions that can produce temperatures up to 7.2 trillion degrees.
- Several billion dollars have been earmarked for other mega science projects in different parts of the world, including India.
Like the LHC, all these projects – in fields ranging from particle physics to cosmology -are designed to help scientists to understand dark matter, black holes, antimatter, gravitational waves and more.
These mega experiments should also validate or disprove theories such as General Relativity, Standard Model, Big Bang and so on. The discovery of a new subatomic particle with properties of the elusive Higgs boson – the socalled ‘God Particle’ – is just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle of our universe.
You may ask: What’s in it for me? Does it matter if it’s God Particle or Goddam Particle? How are these experiments going to affect me?Of course, nothing is going to change for you and me. Unless, as someone said, you are the type of family that discusses antimatter on the dinner table.
Scientists beg to differ. “Our research is driven by a passion to understand the world better,” notes Prof Sridhara Rao Dasu of the Department of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, USA, who was a participant in the LHC experiments. “As a highly evolved species, we must pursue our intellectual curiosity to the maximum extent feasible unburdened by real world concerns.”
Such high-stakes pursuits, according to Dasu, will yield direct technological spinoffs, and a highly educated workforce that could engage in meaningful work in other areas of science, engineering and even finance.
Technological spinoffs of projects such as LHC have been immense. “CCD cameras that were designed for the Hubble Space Telescope now guide breast biopsy procedures, PET (Positron Emission Tomography) employed to detect cancers is a result of research relating to antimatter, and mammograms used for breast cancer detection deploy technologies developed at CERN,” points out Dr Archana Sharma, who works in the detector research group at the centre.
Physicists have a valid reason to celebrate discovery of a new subatomic particle despite the fact that it is yet to be validated as Higgs boson. “The message now is that the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which at present the best understanding of the universe, will not have to be altered. But this is just the beginning of more discoveries,” says Dr Satyaki Bhattacharya of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, and a member of the Indian research group at the LHC.
“Validating the range of Standard Model and discovering any surprises that lie ahead of us, will definitely modify our understanding of the universe,” says Dasu. “At higher energies there should be a plethora new particle states. Some of those particles could be candidates for the dark matter, which is well established as the predominant content of our universe.” The journey has just begun for Big Science.