Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Montreal physicists weigh in on the costs of CERN


Montreal physicists weigh in on the costs of CERN

Bang for our buck?

By Stefan Christoff

The ATLAS Experiment at CERN

Montreal physicists play key role in CERN's Large Hadron Collider quest to unlock the universe's greatest mysteries

Physicists working deep under the earth in Western Europe may be close to uncovering new paradigms in our collective understanding of life's greatest mysteries: the Big Bang, the origins of the universe and the nature of matter.

Last week, a hundred metres below the Swiss-French border, over 6,000 scientists from around the world, including Montreal, activated the Large Hadron Collider. The $8-billion particle accelerator, the biggest and most powerful in the world, sets up all the conditions necessary to mimic the universe's origin and allow scientists to answer the question at the core of particle physics: Why does matter have mass?

Canada has contributed close to $100-million to the project, and scientists from Montreal will assist in monitoring the ATLAS Experiment, a massive data-collecting detector at the heart of the project, which alone consists of over 2,500 scientists from 37 countries.

The experiment, maintained by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), has garnered a great amount of media attention, including its fair share of skeptics who argue that the particle explosions will create mini black holes that could endanger the planet. While CERN has dismissed the scientific arguments behind these expressed fears, scientists working on the project here at home seem more concerned about putting the project's lofty aims in perspective.

"As a lab, it exists to do fundamental science, to ask essential questions about the universe," explains Dr. James Gillies, chief

spokesperson and physicist for CERN. "In undertaking this project, many new technologies are developed, which will possibly have positive and even unimaginable impacts on our lives."

But even scientists closely connected to the work at CERN are weighing the value of the multi-billion-dollar project, considering that such funds could eliminate the developing world's debt load or help reduce growing economic inequities in Canada and around the world.

"It is critical as a society that we carefully weigh the possible positive and negative outcomes for such a major scientific investment," explains Brigitte Vachon, an experimental particle physicist and Canada Research Chair at McGill University. "Fundamental research at this level has benefited society in multiple ways, as it really pushes our understanding of nature and our origins, while [also having] played a key role in creating new technologies, including the Internet and critical medical treatments, such as magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]."

CERN relies on a European public funding model. Scientists argue that to ensure the success of this project and to support greater scientific freedom and independence on essential questions without corporate interest, they will have to rely heavily on public funds.

"The European funding process has provided stability for the project," explains Gillies. He argues that the long-term investment by European governments and long-term vision for the project has been key to its development.

"Public funding has been absolutely critical to this process," says Vachon. "[When you leave] science up to private companies, you see research being attached to specific topics with predetermined corporate goals. For example, we can look to pharmaceutical companies who often fund scientific research and in certain cases have geared the results of research - this process moves away from the possibilities of providing freedom for scientists to explore essential questions and work creatively."

Big Bang science brings up essential questions about not only the universe, but the nature of our society. From their labs in Europe and here at home, scientists are resolute about the importance of the project, despite its price tag.

"Imagine going back to interview Isaac Newton, who wouldn't have been able to explain to you that understanding the law of universal gravitation at that time would have led to so many dramatic changes in our lives, from satellites to space travel," says Gillies, explaining that the last time scientists set up a particle accelerator at CERN, back in 1989, it inspired Tim Berners-Lee's proposal to create the Internet (so scientists working on the project from anywhere in the world could communicate).

For more information, visit CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, at

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