The scientific community is abuzz with the latest news out of CERN: nearly 50 years after Scottish physicist Peter Higgs theorized its existence, evidence of the Higgs boson has been found. For the global physics community, this is tantamount to coming face to face with a mermaid. But what about the rest of us? The layperson, the non-physicist? Folks in middle America, who continue to struggle to put food on the table every day? Why should THEY care?
Media reports during the last 24 hours have barely tackled that question. That means the average non-physicist likely shrugged and went on his or her way pounding the pavement for a job, probably bemoaning the massive amount of money spent to find the elusive little bugger.
On the day of the announcement, the Washington Post ran an Associated Press piece on the particle. It went through the standard information – who, what, when, where and why.
But buried in the piece was a nugget of information shedding light on why the non-physicist should care:
“Were there any practical results from scientists’ hunt for the Higgs boson? Not directly. But the massive scientific effort that led up to the discovery paid off in other ways, one of which was the creation of the World Wide Web…. The vast computing power needed to crunch all of the data produced by the atom smasher has also boosted the development of distributed — or cloud — computing, which is now making its way into mainstream services. Advances in solar energy capture, medical imaging and proton therapy — used in the fight against cancer — have also resulted from the work of particle physicists at CERN and elsewhere.”
It is unfortunate that more media outlets didn’t highlight the “real world” impact of the work leading up to Higgs announcement . The public’s lack of understanding affects whether science projects get funded in the U.S.
On Ezra Klein’s blog at the Washington Post, Brad Plummer explains:
“The Higgs could have been discovered about a decade earlier — and in Texas rather than Switzerland. Back in the 1980s, American physicists were developing a particle accelerator three times as powerful as Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. But Congress eventually cut off funds and the project collapsed.”
Plummer quotes Stephen Weinberg, a Nobel Laureate and physicist involved in the 1980s era Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) project:
“In the early 1980s, the U.S. began plans for the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC, which would accelerate protons to 20 TeV, three times the maximum energy that will be available at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. After a decade of work, the design was completed, a site was selected in Texas, land bought, and construction begun on a tunnel and on magnets to steer the protons.
Then in 1992, the House of Representatives canceled funding for the SSC. Funding was restored by a House–Senate conference committee, but the next year the same happened again, and this time the House would not go along with the recommendation of the conference committee. After the expenditure of almost 2 billion dollars and thousands of man-years, the SSC was dead.”
Why is Congress hesitant to fund big science projects?
The problem, revealed by recent polling funded by APS and several other organizations, is the lack of public understanding for why big science projects are important to our lives. If more attention was given to spreading information about the practical impacts of these large projects, the tide could turn. The voting public could make more informed decisions about how their tax dollars should be spent.
The AP story highlighted a key benefit of the search for the Higgs boson; that that the World Wide Web was invented not by Steve Jobs or Al Gore, but by physicists doing research in pursuit of the Higgs to make it easier to exchange information with one another. So, the next time you surf the web, thank a physicist.