Large Hadron Collider talk at MIT

I attended an interesting talk yesterday at MIT. Markus Klute talked about finding the Higgs boson and establishing its mass using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Klute  mentioned that the Higgs boson would have been found during the Clinton Administration if not for the 1993 cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, whose Texas-sized dimensions would have enabled much higher energies than anything foreseeable in the LHC. A big challenge in making better accelerators, aside from physical size, remains the fabrication of the superconducting cables. Now that the Standard Model has been filled in, what’s the point of an experiment bigger and higher energy than the existing LHC? Professor Klute says that maybe we will be able to figure out Dark Matter/Energy.

[Pressed by an audience member to explain how funding these huge particle physics experiments is beneficial to an economy, Professor Klute was forced to resort to arguing that drawing really smart people (i.e., physicists) to a country would help that country when they quit to do other stuff (e.g., run the hedge funds and trading departments within investment banks that periodically melt down and require torrents of taxpayer cash). Certainly there does not seem to be an immediate market for Dark Energy. Comments from readers would be welcome if anyone can think of something that you can buy today that depends on understanding anything smaller than protons, neutrons, and electrons.  Certain kinds of scanners for medical imaging? For finding radioactive material inside shipping containers? What?]


  1. Artem

    May 15, 2013 @ 1:48 am


    Could anyone in 1909 think of something worth buying that depended on understanding the structure of an atom? By that argument, any reasonable man at that time would surely conclude that Rutherford’s lab mucking with alpha-particles was absolutely useless waste of time and money.

  2. Ed D

    May 15, 2013 @ 5:40 am


    Funding the collider means being able to employ lots of scientists and engineers, and presumably pushes the technological envelope a little, leading to collateral benefits like, for example, the web (a little side project at CERN, I believe). This probably makes the politicians dispensing the funding quite happy and popular.

    However, as a European tax payer, for me the point isn’t what the collider will let do for existing industries, but what it might let us do tomorrow. For instance: 84.5% of the observable universe appears to be composed of dark matter and dark energy. What use is this dark stuff? I don’t know, but you will recall that some esoteric inquiries into the laws governing heat (at a time when the charcoal industry was already quite well developed) lead to thermodynamics, the Newcomen steam engine, and a little thing we called the industrial revolution.

    A fair understanding of 15% or so of the universe has done us some good; it seems premature to conclude that we’ve covered enough of the course material. Let’s at least shoot for being a “C”-grade student.

  3. tekumse

    May 15, 2013 @ 8:10 am


    The idea that basic research is useless is laughable. I just used my GPS which came out of the idea to test relativity in space. I sleep on memory foam discovered by NASA, my glassed have coating discovered by NASA. I am sure there thousands of examples including the Internet.

  4. J. Peterson

    May 15, 2013 @ 4:37 pm


    At least the LHC folks found their boson. Contrast to LIGO which is still waiting for a gravity wave to float by. I do hope they find one though, being able to manipulate gravity would change lots of things.

    (Recently posted: Nice photo tour of CERN).

  5. jay c

    May 15, 2013 @ 5:18 pm


    I only had 3 semesters of college physics, but Einstein was one of my physics professors (Ted Einstein, UMD). If you mean smaller volume, I thought electrons were point particles and there wasn’t anything with less volume. If you mean smaller mass , photons have a mass of zero. I’m not just trying to be smart here. I think you are asking, ‘what items can you buy today which require understanding of fundamental particles besides electrons and photons’? You mentioned Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanners, what about cancer treatment with pion therapy? (source). A relative was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago and I read quite a bit about different treatments. I had not even heard of pi-mesons before that.

  6. jay c

    May 15, 2013 @ 5:28 pm


    Okay, on second thought, pi-meson treatment is not available today, so I guess we can add it to the ‘muon-catalyzed fusion’ category. I’m sure somebody can think of something else more practical.

  7. bill g

    May 16, 2013 @ 11:11 am


    @jay c: in the 4th semester they teach “electrons = point particles” is just a model used to explain some behaviors of electrons, and a flawed model at that. Later came the “electron = fuzzy probability cloud” model, and recently the “electron = shell around nucleus with energy stored as waves on its surface” model proposed by Carver Mead. Here is a great interview by Carver Mead explaining how unbound electrons can be a mile in diameter:

  8. john

    May 17, 2013 @ 9:07 am


    First of all, I think that the unpreparedness of a Professor for a common, but also very flawed, question does not invalidate basic physics research.

    1. You can not (and will not ever be able to) anticipate the value nor the area of fundamental discoveries.
    2. Many research results are only ever significant when they can be combined with other research results which you also can’t reasonably anticipate.
    3. Acquiring significant knowledge in many different scientific areas has been proven without a doubt to reap benefits in society greater than the initial investment (see: why can we build skyscrapers, why do planes fly, why can we analyze genes)

    Progress in a society is made by pushing all boundaries a little until a forward leap happens, not by “investing only where it makes sense”.

    I know that that does not answer the fundamental question of “why don’t we limit ourselves to just the right amount of knowledge about our world and be happy with that”, an argument that has been around ever since someone invented stories in a book and pretended to have all the answers to everything, including life after death. However, it always turned out that nobody really had the answers before he actually knew the right questions.

    Which is about the best argument that I can make for funding experiments and discovery in all fields of science.

  9. Dan Weber

    May 19, 2013 @ 1:45 pm


    The government shouldn’t be funding research with immediate economic benefits. If the benefits are easy to predict, then you’d better explain why the private market isn’t doing it instead. The government is a crappy VC.

    Human Genome Project, Internet, GPS, and the Brain Initiative are good examples of government research.

  10. Hari R

    May 26, 2013 @ 10:54 am


    The word ‘boson’ was named after an individual named Bose…so would the correct way to write this be ‘Higgs Boson’ ? The average individual may not care but us folks of science should be more accurate, yes?

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