Knowledge Doesn’t Have A Price Tag
One of the risks of binding everything we do to a price tag is that we start to attach money everything, including science. I was struck by this dichotomy when watching ‘Particle Fever,' a documentary about the last few months of bringing the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland online.
The Large Hadron Collider could be considered one of humanity’s most expensive projects. It has taken decades and cost billions to assemble thousands of pieces of equipment in a 27 kilometre tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border. Thousands of engineers, scientists and operational staff have co-ordinated bringing to life one of the most powerful particle accelerators ever assembled.
A particle accelerator is pretty much what it sounds like. A device intended to accelerate sub-atomic particles (protons) up to incredible speeds, so that they can smash into each other in a sudden release of energy. This happens so quickly and at such a minute scale that it requires incredibly sensitive instruments to be able to record the outcome of the collision. What is revealed are little glimpses into the very fabric of the particles and forces that make up our universe.
Much of the ‘Particle Fever’ follows David Kaplan, a theoretical particle physicist (and the producer of the documentary) interested in the outcomes of some of the first experiments on the collider, which were carried out in an attempt to identify the Higgs Boson subatomic particle. Lest this takes us down another rabbit hole of physics, it is enough to say the Higgs Boson is fundamental to how particles actually have any mass.
I find all of this exciting, as I’ve long been fascinated by physics, a word which comes from the Greek ‘physikos,’ meaning ’nature.’ The Greeks had a lot to do with early physics. They gave us the word ‘atom’ (smallest practical unit of matter), which comes from ‘atomos,’ meaning indivisible or ’not to cut.’ The Greeks also gave us the word ‘electricity,' which comes from ‘elektron,’ which means amber. Rubbing amber generates a static charge, the first known observation of electricity created intentionally.
We’ve come a long way from the original Greek explorations. Through a sequence of transformations in our understanding of the Universe and our place in it, we are now peering down into the fabric of how everything is made and how everything relates. So it was fascinating to watch a brief exchange between David Kaplan and an un-named economist. After giving a presentation on his work at the collider the following exchange unfolded:
Economist: “Let’s assume you’re successful and everything comes out okay. What do we gain from it? What’s the economic return? How do you justify all this? By the way, I am an economist…”
David Kaplan (Physicist): “The question, by an economist… was, ‘what’s the financial gain of running experiment like this and the discoveries we will make in this experiment?’ And it’s a very very simple answer. I have no idea…We have no idea. When radio waves were discovered, they weren’t called radio waves because there were no radios. They were discovered as some sort of radiation. Basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you’re not asking ‘what is the economic gain,’ you’re asking, ‘what do we not know and where can we make progress?’ So what is the LHC good for? Could be nothing, other than just understanding everything.”
I was frozen in place by the thought. It hadn’t occurred to me to even question to value of conducting this sort of primary science. I think there are several interesting points coming to life in this exchange.
Initially, I think Kaplan actually tries to connect the science through to some sort of gain in technology. Much of our modern technology was not invented for a purpose, it was invented because an earlier scientific insight increased our capacity to capture natural phenomenon. Either we could capture natural phenomena better (like how deeper understanding of gas laws led to more powerful steam engines), or we could capture new natural phenomena (like how we understand the photovoltaic effect and can directly capture sunlight as electricity).
However, after setting aside new technological breakthroughs, I find Kaplan’s last answer more telling, “So what is the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] good for? Could be nothing, other than just understanding everything.” There is a deeper human instinct here. One that seeks to understand the world, for the sake of understanding. I’m not attempting to disparage the field of economics, nor the economics lens, but it seems to me that we are quick to attach a price tag to everything in the world. It’s become our lens for judging the value for nearly everything.
Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but I think there are things that don’t necessarily have a financial return. We do them because they are uplifting. We do them because they are the right thing to do. We do them because we feel more connected to everything around us. In a rather bittersweet ending, the results of the first experiments don’t seem to support any of the theoretical models that Kaplan was exploring, leaving next steps unclear.
Rather than judge the exercise a failure, the perspective of the scientific community gathered around the collider experiments seems to be that we are driven to learning, and our deeper insight is our ultimate reward.
Particle Fever Documentary: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1385956/?ref_=tt_urv.
Photo of particle tracks from CERN at http://cds.cern.ch/record/628469/. © 1997-2019 CERN (License: CC-BY-SA-4.0).