Simon Singh: to answer the deepest questions about the nature of the universe

Science writer and broadcaster Simon Singh has this to say:

I have been asked this question several times over the last few weeks, or more specifically I have been asked why is the LHC important? For me, the LHC represents science in its purest form, so a justification of the LHC probably works as a justification for science in general.

The Large Hadron Collider will attempt to answer all sorts of questions over the next decade. Does the Higgs boson exist and does it explain the mystery of mass? Can we find super-symmetric particles, otherwise known as sparticles? Can we create mini black holes? Is there evidence of extra dimensions? What were the forces at work in the moments after the Big Bang?

All of this is important because it builds on a tradition that dates back to before the Ancient Greeks. Humans have always wondered what the world around us is made of, and it is the clearest illustration of our curiosity. Being curious and addressing scientific questions is what makes us human.

I realise that many people will doubt the value of pure of science and raise all sorts of nit-picking questions. What is the point of pure science? How will it affect me? Is it good value for money?

Personally, I find all those questions to be irrelevant, because striving to understand our universe should already be sufficient justification. For the doubters, however, particle physics can cope with any criticism because it can also deliver when it comes to developing new technologies, affecting lives and benefiting society.

If we go back one hundred years to the discovery of the electron, the first truly fundamental particle to be identified, even physicists doubted that it would be useful and they offered a toast at the annual Cavendish Laboratory dinner: ”The electron: may it never be of use to anybody.”

Today, almost every major technology depends on our understanding of the electron, from the laptop that I am typing on to the light bulb that allows me to see it.

More recently, medical imaging has benefited as a result of developments in particle physics. In fact, PET scans depend on exploiting antimatter to image our bodies, which demonstrates how even the most exotic of particles can help save lives. Most famously, the world wide web was invented at CERN in order to help physicists communicate across globe. The financial, social and cultural benefits of the world wide web alone more than justify the cost of CERN over of the last half a century. And similar spin-offs in the future will justify the £2.6 billion price tag of the LHC.

And finally, if you still have doubts about the amount of money invested in the LHC, then consider the popular pint-of-beer argument, which effectively quashes any criticism. The £2.6 bn is spread across several years and many countries, and this means that each adult in the UK spends less than £1 per year or less than the price of a pint of beer to sustain the LHC. For that paltry amount we are given in return an opportunity to develop extraordinary new technologies and to answer the deepest questions about the nature of the universe.


  1. AntibodyBoy
    Posted November 8, 2008 at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I've just thought of a better way to end this nice little Simon Singh piece!

    "...and wouldn't you buy a pint for someone who offered to show you how the universe works?"


  2. Jerry Glover
    Posted February 5, 2009 at 11:50 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I am strongly oppose the statements here. They tipify what I object to in the scientist for whom practical application and purposeful justification is a kind of frivolity to be brushed off in the face of gathering knowledge for its own sake. Like pure mathematics, but with vast effort and expense attached.

    The LHC is at the nub of this. This project is a dinosaur relic of the road started around the 18th century on which science dissects the universe to a smaller and smaller degree, isolating it from it's constituent parts until it quickly loses sight of much more 'fundamental forces', those which weave everything together, and which give the universe and life context and meaning.

    You could say that the LHC is precisely about uncovering what makes everything bind together, which it is within a very specific methodology and outlook. In the decades since it was thought of it has been overtaken by much more important questions (eg. dark energy, clean energy, holographic principle, M-theory etc) and projects that don't garner the same amount of attention because they are not so big, macho, willfully obscure, and expensive in their physical expression. This is what the LHC is: big, macho, obscure, and probably irrelevant to everyone except the uber-elite who tinker with and scry its data. A bit like going to the moon, but without the imaginative cache, in spite of the ridiculous amount of coverage thrown at it.

    So what if there's a Higgs-Bosun? That's about personal prestige more than anything, isn't it? About proving the idea of an old scientist who's played the game properly.

    The pint of beer argument about the cost is daft, really, one might as well say that for the price of a curry we could irrigate the deserts and end world hunger. Simon might want to challenge his thinking about their place in the universe a bit more.

    The very violence of the LHC praxis repels: "We're going to smash matter to bits until we can see what's it's really made of, torture it until it gives up its secrets." Let's see where that gets them. I truly hope something does come of it, something as important as the electron as Simon Singh hopes, yet I am wary of that happening. Perhaps it can help build the bridge between matter and consciousness, which is just as essential to know as the existence of some particle. This will only happen if its results are correlated with research in other fields. Can larger-scale organization and patterns be discovered by ripping up the universe into the smallest pieces?

    It might be the best we can hope for from this gargantuan folly - not silly, school-grade level sci-fi things like 'mini-black holes.' I mean, really! If mini black holes do get created they should suck in the LCH and its creators. Why pretend to know what cannot be known and make something up? Why not say, "Frankly, we don't know what it's going to produce, that's the point, we'll have to see based on the results and shedloads more work by many other people in other areas." But no, you can't get a professional science commentator to admit to that, it would sound like they don't know their subject and are failing to capture public attention.

    I may be losing sight of what it's actually all about since I only see this kind of popularizing approach, but this LHC hype really gets my goat. Is everyone at that project happy with the way expectations are being raised? It makes me want time travel!

    Hype aside, it's the sanctimonious justification of the "pure" research attitude that aggravates: "We've built our tower now, phew. It's very very tall, and we're happy in it all the way up here. Anything coming from it that's to do with them out there, they should be grateful for, but that's not really why we're here."

  3. Posted March 30, 2009 at 12:24 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Good Lord, Jerry. You totally don't get it.

    #1: The technological advances resulting from the LHC will be worth it in and of themselves. Their WLCG computing platform already points to the future backbone of the internet.

    #2: What is the point of life, according to you? Let me refer you to an excerpt from a New Yorker article about the LHC (

    "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."

  4. Posted April 9, 2009 at 8:30 AM | Permalink | Reply

    The LHC is today's great adventure. Like all adventures it is both exciting and a little scary and there are those who oppose it believing either it is a waste of time and money or that it is too dangerous.

    We don't know what will come out of the LHC any more than we knew what the effect of Michael Faraday's experiments on electricity would be. If we know the result beforehand there wouldn't be much point in doing would there?

    As for the snipe about Pure Maths in Jerry's comment words (nearly) fail me. To give just one example of many - it was the obscure pure maths of group theory that cracked the enigma machine in WW11 saving many lives in the process.

  5. Posted July 20, 2009 at 1:26 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Well said Paula. Furthermore, if it wasn't for pure maths there could be no encryption, no e-commerce etc. the list just goes on an on.

    Furthermore, the LHC probably will help us answer questions about M-Theory, dark energy etc. etc. Or maybe Jerry has other cunning ways to probe the universe to answer such questions.

  6. Adam Atkins
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 11:53 AM | Permalink | Reply

    "...what I object to in the scientist for whom practical application and purposeful justification is a kind of frivolity to be brushed off in the face of gathering knowledge for its own sake."


    At the forefront of modern physics it can be inherently impossible to know *exactly* what will be gained by conducting experiments such as the LHC. I say "inherently impossible" because it's not really possible for us to understand the implications of discovering something that we didn't truly know existed in the first place. This may sound a little convoluted, but essentially what I'm trying to say is that before we discovered the existence of the electron, we couldn't possibly have conceived of all the potential applications of its discovery. The same will hold true for the discovery (or lack there of) of the Higgs Boson for example, as before we truly understand its nature (or if it doesn't exist, what this implies), we can't possibly be expected to understand all of the potential benefits of its discovery (or the lack of its discovery).

    Doing science to gain knowledge "for it's own sake" is not a frivolous endeavour. Knowledge is the starting line in the race to create newer, safer, greener, healthier and more economical technologies that will benefit the lives of generations to come.

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