Sharing our sense of wonder

March 17, 2000

Scientists are duty-bound to explain the significance of their work to the public, says Frank Close

In National Science Week 1993 the minister for science, William Waldegrave, set high-energy physicists a challenge. They wanted to construct an amazing machine, a Large Hadron Collider, at the European particle physics laboratory in Cern, Geneva. In order that he could present their case in the best way during discussions with the chancellor for an upcoming budget, he suggested the physicists provided a concise explanation of what the LHC was for. As an incentive he offered a bottle of vintage champagne. The catch was that to maximise attention, the description had to fit on a side of A4.

I compared the challenge to being asked to describe the Maastricht Treaty on one page - and failed to win the competition. But Waldegrave convinced his colleagues and European decision-makers approved the LHC project.

So where are we as National Science Week 2000 begins? Construction of the LHC is well under way, with completion due around 2005. But why does it matter and why were ministers persuaded to contribute towards the project?

One of the questions intriguing scientists is how a perfect, symmetric Creation - as current scientific theory postulates - has led to the highly structured, lopsided asymmetric universe of today. There are no mass-produced test tubes that can make an experiment of such magnitude. There is no customised "Big Bang apparatus" for sale whereby we can experience the first moments of the universe in our living rooms.

This is not mere hype. To voyage to the start of time you have to build all the pieces for yourself, transforming the rocks and gases of our planet into tools. The LHC will do this - it will take us to the start of time, to the epoch when the masses and identities of the electron and other particles critical to our existence were encoded.

The collider is being built in a km-long tunnel, 50m below ground, which for the past decade was home to the Large Electron Positron collider. Where LEP used lightweight electrons and positrons, the LHC will swing two counter-rotating beams of protons or atomic nuclei around the circuit. Protons are 2,000 times more massive than electrons and will pack a greater punch, thereby probing deeper into the Big Bang than has previously been possible.

Technological challenges pervade the project. Head-on collisions between particles in the two beams will momentarily create temperatures far hotter than any star, experienced nowhere in the universe since within a split second of the Big Bang. To record what happens in these "mini-bangs" will require information to be processed at a rate equivalent to everyone on Earth making 20 phone calls simultaneously. The detectors that will do this will be about 20m tall, consisting of more than 10,000 tonnes of electronics that are beyond state-of-the-art.

The technological challenges are pushing the frontiers of research and development in diverse fields such as information processing, in the production of detectors that can operate for long periods while subject to intense radiation, and in superconductivity. The LEP was the inspiration for the web - invented at Cern so scientists in universities worldwide might analyse their data. The LHC will take us beyond this into uncharted territory. For many engineers, the project defines the cutting edge of technology.

When the true symmetries of the Creation are finally known, the way that nature broke those symmetries will also become clear. For it is this that is the origin of our existence. The creation of a perfect symmetrical universe, had it stayed that way, would have prevented any intelligent life ever being able to know it.

The LHC will give us the possibility of answering questions so profound they could not have been articulated at the start of the 20th century. It is a big project, but this is the price we have to pay - figuratively as well as literally - if we are ever to know the answers.

I believe that the appearance of the LHC will be one of the world's greatest scientific achievements. Many of the scientists working on it are driven by the excitement of looking into the unknown. It is incumbent on them to share their wonder and to explain the significance of their work to the public, who ultimately are paying for it through their taxes. I would hope that all scientists recognise the need to be involved in the public understanding of science.

Frank Close is head of theoretical physics at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. His Lucifer's Legacy is published today, OUP, Pounds 16.99.

* Is it the duty of scientists to explain their work clearly to the public?

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