Whoa, Dudes! Nice Hole in the Ground!

If, in a thousand years, someone visited the ruins of the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs experiment was conducted, it is doubtful that they would get from the relics of the detectors and super­conducting magnets a sense of the subatomic world that its scientists say it revealed.

In that quote, Daniel Sarewitz explains the basis on which he compares the Large Hadron Collider with the temples of Angkor.

Our understanding of the Large Hadron Collider relies heavily on our knowledge of the cultural (“scientific”) context in which it was built and is used. We have expositions of quantum field theory, hypotheses regarding its experimentally accessible manifestations (such as the generation of Higgs bosons) and technical explanations of how the Large Hadron Collider works and how it may be used. None of these are inherent in the physical structure of the Large Hadron Collider itself and without them, our 31st century archaeologist’s assessment would be limited. As limited, perhaps, as is our own of the Angkor temples (“whoa, dudes! NICE STACK OF ROCKS!” was how “JBlilie” put it in a comment on one hostile review of Sarewitz’s article).

People in the distant future, looking at whatever remains of a large circular tunnel, are unlikely to fully appreciate the Large Hadron Collider’s significance in our efforts to understand the workings of nature (and – who knows? – may be unimpressed even if they do). Likewise ourselves, being untroubled by the contemporary context, can choose to see Angkor as a “nice stack of rocks” assembled by technically skilled but otherwise benighted followers of a quaint religion. On the other hand, Sarewitz quotes architect Maurice Glaize who suggests that Angkor may have somehow expressed or even helped to elucidate twelfth century Khmer understanding of the workings of the universe:

“In each of the Angkor monuments, … a pre­occupation with symbolic order seeks to create a representation of the universe in reduction … realising a kind of correctly ordered model”.

In the end, without knowing how the builders of Angkor talked about and used the structures, we can only guess at what meaning the buildings held for them. In the same way, the meaning of the Large Hadron Collider for us lies in how we talk about and use it. A common feature of that meaning is the use of the word “fundamental”. CERN’s own web site says:

“It is a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles – the fundamental building blocks of all things. It will revolutionise our understanding, from the minuscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the Universe.”

Inevitably, there will be, in due course, practical applications and technological consequences of knowing how to create Higgs bosons, but in what direction? Will the Large Hadron Collider or the knowledge that Higgs bosons exist revolutionise our understanding of climate change or of how to avert global pandemics or economic recession? I doubt anyone can say right now. The “fundamental” nature of the Higgs boson does not inevitably result in illumination of every problem. While we may believe there are material benefits to come from it, we are hard pressed to say in advance what those might be and it is hard to see at all how it would inform many currently perceived problems of economic or social significance. This leads to the question of why “we” fund such research in the first place. In his article, Sarewitz compared science with religion and pointed to the “faith” required by non-physicists to believe in the existence of the Higgs boson. Many commentators on the article ridiculed him for this, a common point being that faith in science is unnecessary. We can always check the facts for ourselves if we are so inclined. The same does not apply to “truths” revealed by religion.

We may not need faith to believe the results of scientific research, but what about the beliefs on which we base research funding decisions? Building the Large Hadron Collider was originally approved with a budget of 2.6 billion Swiss Francs (~$2.72 billion at today’s rates) but the actual cost is now estimated at $4.4 billion with another $1.1 billion for the experiments [Wikipedia]. That’s quite some investment. Yet, as far as I know, there is no plan mapped out to show how the research will engender economic benefits that equal, let alone exceed, that value. Peter Higgs, who originally predicted the existence of the particle that bears his name has said he has “no idea” what practical applications it could have[telegraph.co.uk]. Nevertheless, “we” presumably believe we are somehow better off for investing in the Collider. Not unlike the ancient Khmers who invested in building in the Angkor temples and medieval Europeans who invested in building cathedrals.

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