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.

Advertisements