Friday, 6 July 2012

Cold War has a half-life in discovery of Higgs boson

The Large Hadron Collider tunnel.
It's funny how things turn out. If we look back to when CERN was established the things that stand out are who, when and why. The year the European Council for Nuclear Research - it's from the French version of this name that the acronym 'CERN' derives - was set up is 1952.

This is Cold War territory, the era of the Truman Doctrine ("the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures", i.e. the Soviet Union; announced in 1947), and the era of the Marshall Plan (officially the European Recovery Program, where the US supplied funds to European countries to rebuild following WWII; instituted in 1948). The CIA was established around the same time, in 1947; funds for the operation of the CIA in early days were taken from Marshall Plan resources. The post-WWII US effort to counter the power of the Soviet Union globally was singular in its focus and lavish in its funding of foreign entities. Lots of cash was floating around.

So while there were 12 European countries in CERN in 1952 it's pretty clear that a lot of the cash that went into it at the beginning was from the US, and this cash was channelled by ideological concerns. The aim of CERN would have been to direct the work of specialists resident in European to develop weapons that could be used in a new war against the Soviet Union. The name changed to the European Organization for Nuclear Research in 1954, but the acronym remained unchanged when this occurred.

There are now 20 states who are members of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider started to be built in 1998 - nine years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Member states contribute on a sliding scale, where Germany puts in just over 20 percent of the budget, equal to 174 million Euros. Britain, at number three, puts in 125 million Euros. And so on down to Bulgaria which puts in 2.7 million Euros. So CERN is a matter for the commons, and not just in Europe. When Tim Berners-Lee first put together the WWW in 1989 it was at CERN that this happened.

It would be interesting to know what kind of rhetoric has been used, especially in recent, lean times, to enable the continued appropriation of funds in European parliaments for the type of work that CERN undertakes. I think that this kind of commons-focused, large-scale scientific work could only happen in Europe. In the US it would be too easily subject to the vagaries of political expedience, and in fact I think there was a US analogue that was dumped in recent times for this very reason. In the US, the military and NASA would be undertaking the kind of blue-sky research that CERN represents.

But what does the LHC work mean for physicists? Today in the Australian, Kevin Varvell, an associate professor of physics at the University of Sydney who is involved in the LHC research wrote:
Well, I can't point to an immediate practical application that will improve quality of life for everyone on Earth, although I know more than a few high-energy physicists who will feel a lot happier with life and breathe a lot easier, but it means we now have a dependable theory that explains how the universe we can sense around us is put together. And we can use it with more confidence to predict what is likely to happen to matter in unknown or novel circumstances.
And of course the immediate future is full of next steps, including a lot more collisions so as to "measure [the Higgs boson], analyse it, describe it and sketch out its properties". "That's going to take us at least another couple of decades," says Varvell. And so it goes on. For whatever reason these enormous amounts of money are allocated to high-end research, the benefits accrue to everyone. This is the locus of the commons. In the case of the LHC, we will all benefit in innumerable ways from understanding the universe better. This knowledge will radically alter our idea of ourselves, of Creation, and of the nature of everything.

It's just funny how things turn out. My parents first met around the time CERN was established. The Queen visited Australia for the first time. My grandfather - my mother's father - died. Nabokov's Lolita was published. Almost three generations later the original political motivation for CERN is a mere institutional memory. So much so that the current communal approach to funding this research contrasts oddly with the motivating ideology of the prime mover, the US, of the original effort. Things turn out in strange ways.

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