Yesterday’s New York Times contains a nice op-ed by Steven Weinberg (you know him, of course, as an atheist and physicist nonpareil, and Nobel laureate to boot): “Why the Higgs boson matters.” He gives a good explanation about why the Higgs boson was an essential part of the Standard Model of physics (when physicists are so certain that something has to be there, you know that their theories are pretty good!), but then goes on to explain why the average Joe and Jane should care about that boson:
These are the cautious words you would expect to hear from a prudent physicist. But I have been waiting for the discovery of the Higgs boson since 1967, and it’s hard for me now to doubt that it has been found.
So what? Even if the particle is the Higgs boson, it is not going to be used to cure diseases or improve technology. This discovery simply fills a gap in our understanding of the laws of nature that govern all matter, and throws light on what was going on in the early universe. It’s wonderful that many people do care about this sort of science, and regard it as a credit to our civilization.
Of course not everyone feels this way, and even those who do have to ask whether learning the laws of nature is worth the billions of dollars it costs to build particle accelerators. This question is going to come up again, since our present Standard Model is certainly not the end of the story. It leaves out gravitation; it does not explain the particular values of the masses of quarks and electrons and other particles; and none of its particles can account for the “dark matter” that astronomers tell us makes up five-sixths of the mass of the universe. You can count on physicists to ask their governments for the facilities they need to grapple with these problems.
So in the end, Weinberg is forced to make an economic argument for this type of research:
A case can be made for this sort of spending, even to those who don’t care about learning the laws of nature. Exploring the outer frontier of our knowledge of nature is in one respect like war: It pushes modern technology to its limits, often yielding new technology of great practical importance.
For instance, the new particle was produced at CERN in collisions of protons that occur at a rate of over a hundred million collisions per second. To analyze the flood of data produced by all these collisions requires real time computing of unmatched power. Also, before the protons collide, they are accelerated to an energy over 3,000 times larger than the energy contained in their own masses while they go many times around a 27-kilometer circular tunnel. To keep them in their tracks requires enormously strong superconducting magnets, cooled by the world’s largest source of liquid helium. In previous work at CERN, elementary particle physicists developed a method of sharing data that has become the World Wide Web.
On a longer time scale, the advance of technology will reflect the coherent picture of nature we are now assembling. At the end of the 19th century physicists in England were exploring the properties of electric currents passing through a near vacuum. Although this was pure science, it led to our knowledge of the electron, without which a large part of today’s technology would be impossible. If these physicists had limited themselves to work of obvious practical importance, they would have been studying the behavior of steam boilers.
So spending all that money understanding nature will ultimately yield long-term technological benefits. That, we should tell the doubters, is why we should invest so much money in science. And yes, this kind of research does have practical payoffs. Many of our advances in cancer therapy, for instance, came from research that was “pure,” that is, not aimed at cancer treatment. One reason to fund pure science is indeed because it has unexpected practical payoffs—payoffs in health, payoffs in technology.
But I wish we could convince the public that there are simple payoffs in understanding. Humans are curious animals: we want to know where we came from, and where the universe came from, and what we and the universe are made of. That is worth something in itself. Even if evolutionary biology had no practical benefits (and yes, there are some, but the vast amount of money given us by taxpayers to study evolution is to promote pure understanding), it would be worth spending money on, just as we subsidize the arts.
Now of course we have to trade off science with other practical benefits when it comes to big-ticket items like the Large Hadron Collider. We can’t spend every penny of public money on simple understanding of the universe. But nevertheless, science brings intellectual rewards that are in many ways as beneficial as technical rewards. What is it worth to know that we evolved from a common ancestor with chimps six million years ago, or where we fit on the tree of life? How can you put a price on that?
But, as scientists, since we’re given money to find this stuff out, it’s incumbent on us to give back to the public what we find. That is what Weinberg has done in his several books, and it’s why I write articles and books on evolution.
Mencken expressed the motivation of scientists pretty well in his collection called A Mencken Chrestomathy (a book I can’t recommend too highly, and only $16 for hours of pleasure):
The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.