A number of people have commented on this LA Times op-ed by Steve Giddings about what physicists expect to come out of the Large Hadron Collider. It includes a nice list of possible particle physics discoveries plus a few things that will annoy Peter Woit, and also includes the obligatory note about spin-offs:
All this may seem like impractical and esoteric knowledge. But modern society would be unrecognizable without discoveries in fundamental physics. Radio and TV, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, PCs, iPhones, the GPS system, the Web and beyond — much that we take for granted would not exist without this type of physics research and was not predicted when the first discoveries were made. Likewise, we cannot predict what future discoveries will lead to, whether new energy sources, means of space travel or communication, or amazing things entirely unimagined.
This is not by any means the main thrust of his argument, which is basically that we should build the LHC because the fundamental science it will uncover is really, really cool. And that’s a good thing, because the practical impacts of the LHC are likely to be totally insignificant. The list given above is a great argument for funding Bell Labs, but not the LHC.
I’m not denying that those technologies came out of fundamental physics research, but take another look at that list: “Radio and TV, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, PCs, iPhones, the GPS system, the Web and beyond.” There is exactly one item on that list that originates in the era of billion-dollar accelerators, and that’s the web. The fundamental science behind the others all dates from before the founding of CERN in 1954.
The direct practical impact of the large accelerator era is pretty much negligible for the simple reason that you need a really big accelerator to observe the phenomena they study. All you need to generate X-rays is a couple of pieces of metal in a vacuum tube, and a current source. If you want to make a Z boson, you need many millions of dollars worth of gear. You’re almost certainly never going to see practical technologies based on the Higgs boson, because it takes a billion dollars worth of particle accelerator to make one.
Now, sure, the Web is a spin-off from particle physics research, though that seems to be as much an accident of history as anything else. It’s not like nobody else would ever hit on the idea of sending more than plain-text messages over the Internet, if there hadn’t been particle physicists. And it’s possible that dealing with data from the LHC will lead some Berners-Lee 2.0 to develop, I don’t know, full sensory holographic information transfer protocols, and twenty years from now we’ll all be struggling to remember what mere local physical reality was like. But really, if that’s what you want, you’d be better off splitting the $10 billion among a thousand computing and neuroscience labs, and letting them work directly on the problem.
In the large accelerator era, I wonder if we don’t need to make a distinction between “basic research” and what we might as well call “fundamental research” (though that term kind of bugs me for other reasons). What goes on in high-energy labs these days is so far removed from everyday energies that it might as well be astronomy, as far as practical impacts are concerned. You wouldn’t try to sell the Hubble Telescope to the public on the basis of potential spin-offs in imaging technology, and I’m not sure it makes any more sense to try to sell the LHC on the basis of possible spin-offs in computing technology (or whatever).
This is not to denigrate the study of basic physical principles, though. Basic research done at energies achievable on a reasonable scale is incredibly valuable, and leads to all sorts of unexpected technologies. Where the large accelerator era of particle physics has given us the web, the contributions of a basic research facility like the old Bell Labs are far greater. I don’t know if anyone has ever calculated the ultimate economic impact of all the devices invented at Bell Labs versus the amount of money spent operating it, but I bet they come out ahead of CERN, even if you use one of the more fanciful estimates of the worth of the Web.
If you want practical technologies to transform everyday life, what you want is Bell Labs working on devices that can be produced in large numbers and run off ordinary electrical lines, not the LHC which is necessarily a one-of-a-kind instrument. There are huge gains to be made from the study of basic physics at human-scale energies (high-temperature superconductivity, say), but nothing practical is likely to be based on TeV-scale physics.
Now, as I said, the spin-off argument is not the main argument put forward by Giddings, and it hasn’t been the primary line pushed by the particle physics community, probably because it failed so miserably with the SSC, back in the day. The organizations responsible for the LHC have done an outstanding job of selling their instrument on the basis of the way-cool things it will discover, to the point where their worst PR problem is not the cost of the device, but the infinitesimal probability that it will somehow destroy the Earth. And that’s as it should be– if we can spend hundreds of billions of dollars saving idiot financiers from their own incompetence, we can afford a few billion for the LHC, which is of infinitely more value to human civilization.