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Some tools for innovation come with a very large price tag attached… a very very large price tag!  

Consider LHC – large hadron collider. Hadrons are protons and neutrons, in the language of physicists. Collider – well, the device smashes them into one another at almost the speed of light. Beams of hadrons are sent in opposite directions around a circle, bent by huge supercooled magnets. At 99.9999991% of the speed of light, they collide and self-destruct. Large? How about a 17-mile-long circular tunnel? The LHC is now under construction beneath an area on the Swiss-French border. It should be called VELHC – very expensive LHC, because it will cost between $5 and $10 b. (nobody knows for sure yet). 

It is part of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, and when completed it will depose America from its top ranking in particle research, as the Fermilab accelerator near Chicago will no longer be world class. 

You could do a whole lot of science with that $10 b. So what is the justification for LHC? 

Basic science in physics has a way of producing inventions that make our lives better. Consider, for instance, the exotic “giant magnetoresistance” effect, discovered by Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg (for which they won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Physics). 

Magnetoresistance is the property of a material that changes the value of its electrical resistance when an external magnetic field is applied to it. Applications of this phenomenon have led to techniques for retrieving data from hard disks – one of the very first commercial applications of nanotechnology, used in part to create better read-out heads for iPods and similar devices. 

So – what will LHC contribute to humanity, when it is completed? No-one knows yet. I expect we will get both fruit and light. Light – in terms of understanding how the universe was created in the so-called Big Bang, which the LHC will partly simulate. Fruit – in terms of basic physics principles that brilliant entrepreneurs will turn into great devices like iPods.  

And, incidentally, don’t eulogize “Old Europe” (in George Bush’s phrase) just yet. Europe is putting large resources into basic science. In time those resources will lead to powerful commercial innovations. Both America and Israel should take notice.

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All eyes are focused on the global credit crunch and financial crisis, and the rapidly declining dollar. A Wall Street Journal editorial asks, The Buck Stops – Where?

Some commentators are optimistic, taking a long view and suggesting that America will bounce back from this short-term cyclical decline. America, they note, is the still world’s technology leaders. America will rebound.

But a study done by five Georgia Institute of Technology scholars, widely reported, and released in January, suggests otherwise.

They measure a variety of technology and competitiveness indicators for a cross-section of 33 countries, going back to 1993 and going up to 2007. For the “technological standing” indicator (which measures “a country’s recent overall success in export high technology products”), they present what they euphemistically call “quite interesting results”:

* The U.S. peaked at 95 in 1999, and is now down to 76.1; America is no longer first.
* China has increased from 22.5 in 1996 to 82.8 in 2007. It is now in first place.
* Japan peaked at 93.9 in 1996 and is now down to 66.0. (“Recall,” say the authors, “that the indicators are relative”). 

The countries showing sizeable declines in 2007 include “the two traditional leaders, USA and Japan, note the scholars.”
 
And another worrisome postscript: Israel’s Technology Standing score is only 25, ranking Israel well behind, for instance, Malaysia and Mexico. Moreover, Israel’s competitiveness between 1993 and 2007 has declined, according to the researchers.
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A. Porter, N. Newman, X. Jin, D. Johnson, J.Roessner, “High Tech Indicators: Technology-Based Competitiveness of 33 Nations”, 2007 Report,  Georgia Inst. Of Technology, Jan. 22/2008.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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