Last week, the European Nuclear Research Center CERN published its plans for the construction of a new particle accelerator. A 100 km long tunnel packed with high-tech for the price of 20 billion euros. There are good arguments in favor of building such an experiment, but there are many arguments against it. From a scientific point of view, the huge particle accelerator enables us to learn something new about the world of elementary particles. On the other hand, we already know all the particles of the standard model of physics. Until 2012, only the Higgs boson is missing; This will be discovered at CERN in that year by what is currently the largest particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). An argument for an even larger particle accelerator is that physicists in the course of the development of the required technologies expect many new technological advances. Time and again, the Internet is taken as an example, the basis of which is developed by CERN scientists 4 decades ago.
At the end of the day, it’s all about money: The advocates think the money is well invested into one huge experiment; the opponents believe that with this enormous sum one can promote a considerable number of smaller projects, each of which, however, still costs several million euros. The critics recommend investing the money in their own projects, which for themselves are the most important, relevant, and worst funded. But would the money really go to other projects if it is not spent on a new particle accelerator?
Already in the 1970s, a similar experiment is considered in the USA, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which is comparable to the LHC later built at CERN. Until the 1990s, billions of dollars are invested in the preparatory work. Work on the SSC is finally terminated with the same arguments that are being used now: the money is better spent on many smaller experiments. Nothing like that happens. The billions saved do not flow into concrete scientific projects but into the stuffing of budget holes.
Politicians want to see inventions that can be used economically; science itself hardly matters for anyone there. Long before SSC or LHC are up for discussion, planning of the first particle accelerator triggers the same discussions. In the then pro-and-contra hearings in the Senate, one of the proponents, the physicist Robert R. Wilson, gives a now legendary answer to the question of whether the particle accelerator will result in advantages in the Cold War with the Soviet Union:
“Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.“
The construction of the new CERN particle accelerator is scheduled to be completed by 2050; Results of the planned experiments are expected in the years following. I’ll be 90 in 2050. If I’m alive at all then maybe I’m so senile that I cannot understand anymore what might be discovered at CERN anyway. It makes me a little sad that my chances are low to at some point really understand – Life, the Universe, and Everything.