Justification for Colliders

I read an informative and entertaining article on the Large Hadron Collider in, of all places, the May 14 New Yorker. The article did an exceptional job of explaining to the layperson the LHC project (the 7 trillion electron volt machine scheduled for completion in Cern this October), including the mechanics of its operation, hoped for results, and the underlying theoretical physics. It even did a creditable job of presenting a mercifully brief, high level outline of string theory, if that is possible. The article is Crash Course by Elizabeth Kolbert, linked here, as, happily, it’s available online at the moment.

But I found the motivation for this posting in a remarkable quotation that was included as background for why such massively expensive projects get funded in the first place. Since most of the quote should be in the Congressional Record and hence part of the public domain, I would like to simply excerpt this passage, below.

In 1969, the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy held a hearing at which the physicist Robert Wilson was called to testify. Wilson, who had served as the chief of experimental nuclear physics for the Manhattan Project, was at that point the head of CERN’s main rival, Fermilab, and in charge of $250 million that Congress had recently allocated for the lab to build a new collider. Senator John Pastore, of Rhode Island, wanted to know the rationale behind a government expenditure of that size. Did the collider have anything to do with promoting the security of the country?

WILSON: No sir, I don’t believe so.

PASTORE: Nothing at all?

WILSON: Nothing at all.

PASTORE: It has no value in that respect?

WILSON: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. . . . It has to do with are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about … It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.

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