Fundamental science drives technology and innovation, laying the foundations for progress and improvement. It’s hard to find a company that does not rely on the fruits of basic research in carrying out its day-to-day business. Basic research is the lifeblood of industry—without it, there would be no science to apply, and any commitment to improving the state of the world would be bound to fail.
The timescale from lab to marketplace is often long, far longer than any political cycle, and for that reason basic science is rarely a top priority for government decision makers. So, under pressure to deliver quick results, science policy frequently strives to identify those areas of applied science that can mature before the next election. Thankfully, humans are curious by nature, so basic research continues to attract some of the brightest minds, and a reasonable share of the funding. It’s just as well, since without it progress would slowly come to a halt.
To illustrate the point, consider GPS systems. To get to the origin of that technology, we have to go back to the 1660s and an orchard in Lincolnshire, where the sight of a falling apple inspired a young Isaac Newton. Years later, this led to Newton’s remarkable achievement in realizing that what makes planets orbit around stars is the same force that causes apples to fall from trees. I don’t suppose he anticipated that people would one day use that theory to navigate roads, autobahns, and interstates, and I have taken a bit of a liberty in jumping from Newton to GPS. In reality, another curious scientist, Einstein, would have to refine the notion of gravity before the theory could be used to deliver the pinpoint accuracy we now take for granted. This is just one example, but trace the family tree of just about anything in the modern world, and you’ll find a curious scientist at its origin.
In the 20th century, applied science advanced by leaps and bounds, attracting minds every bit as brilliant as those going in to basic science, and changing our lives in ways unimaginable to the previous generation. Has applied science become self-sustaining? I think not. It’s my belief that a long legacy of painstaking fundamental science beginning at the time of Newton and accelerating with Einstein’s generation laid down a rich seam of knowledge for the applied sciences to tap into. In physics, at least, we have to ensure that this seam is constantly replenished, which brings me to the crux of this essay.
Certain events mark the passage of time, dividing history into what went before and what comes after. The works of Newton and Einstein both did that, and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) marks another pivotal moment in our understanding of the universe.
The LHC, CERN’s frontier research facility, is more powerful than any particle accelerator ever built. Our expectations of the LHC are high, and it is already delivering results in areas as diverse as management and medical imaging. We often hear that the LHC will change our view of the universe, and we at CERN are fond of referring to the machine as an accelerator of both science and innovation. But what can we realistically expect?
First and foremost, the LHC will change our view of the universe. It is a unique machine in the unique position of being guaranteed to produce significant new physics. That’s because one ingredient of the theory we use to describe the particles and forces that make up the visible universe remains to be tested. Developed by scientists in the 1960s and bearing the name of British physicist Peter Higgs, it is the mechanism that endows certain fundamental particles with mass. Evidence for it must appear in the LHC energy range: Either we find experimental evidence for the Higgs mechanism, or we find something else that does the same job. Important though that is, it is just the start. Today we know that there is much more to the universe than what we can see; the visible universe accounts for only about 4 percent of what we know must be there. In other words, 96 percent remains to be discovered. The LHC could be the machine to guide us on our first steps into the unseen universe.
The prospect of understanding mass, I believe, is sufficient to justify humanity’s investment in basic research. But the basic research conducted at the LHC is also beneficial to those with more earthly concerns. New technology based on developments made for the LHC is already starting to appear. Thanks to advances in the LHC’s ultra-high-vacuum technology, new solar-energy collectors are making their way to market. Thanks to investments made for one of the LHC’s experiments, a prototype combined PET/MRI scanner is approaching clinical trials. And thanks to the LHC’s IT needs, a new paradigm of distributed computing called “The Grid” is being perfected by CERN and collaborating institutes around the world.
These kinds of developments come naturally when you bring together clever, motivated people from around the world in pursuit of a common goal. And a scientist involved in basic research is by definition motivated: We do what we do because we are passionate about understanding the universe. Where there are technological hurdles in our way, we solve them. We are not trying to make new medical scanners; they are a side effect of our fundamental research.
This is part of the process of fundamental science, and so long as the seams of basic scientific knowledge, laid down by our forebears, remain rich, the scientists of today will mine it to develop such life-enhancing applications.
Science and its technological spin-offs are not the only ways in which the LHC community can contribute to improving the state of the world. Since taking up my mandate as director general of CERN, I have found myself responding to as many questions about the management of the particle-physicists community as about the science itself. Can you run a $10 billion project with hundreds of partners on the basis of consensus? Does competitive collaboration really work? Are there lessons for the business community in how basic science is adapting to an increasingly globalized world? The answer to all these questions is clearly yes. As well as generating knowledge and driving innovation, the way we manage “big science” can serve as a role model for a wider section of society.
Globalization comes naturally to particle physicists. Traditionally, the big labs such as CERN have provided infrastructure that has been open to scientists from around the world. Typically, there have been at least two such facilities in the world addressing the same scientific questions from different angles and engendering a spirit of collaborative competition—two words that do not usually sit comfortably together. What this has shown is that governance by consensus, fueled by collaboration and competition, can deliver outstanding results.
A deeper understanding of the universe, new technologies, and a role model for managing broadly distributed and culturally varied organizations: These are outcomes of basic science that are valuable to society. And it’s reasonable to expect the scientific community to deliver them in the short term. The most valuable in terms of sustained improvement of the world is the one closest to my heart—understanding the universe and in the process laying down a new seam of fundamental scientific knowledge for future generations to mine. Human ingenuity being what it is, the future will undoubtedly bring applications based on discoveries made with the LHC. Although, as with Newton’s gravity, it may be some time before we’re privy to all of them, and to their implications. For our children and grandchildren, however, I am sure that the wait will have been worthwhile.
Rolf Heuer is the director general of CERN.
Originally published November 26, 2010