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Columbia Spectator Staff

Unless our species acts quickly to ameliorate the damage it's done to the planet by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for hundreds of years, we're done for. It's good that global warming is at the center of the public's interest in science because this gives policy makers and scientists the funding and support they need to pull us out of our downward spiral into climatic chaos. But frankly, we've had our ears chewed off about it by the likes of Larry Page, Bono, and Al Gore. So we thought it would be refreshing to hear about something that is much closer to the periphery of the public consciousness and much less likely to bring about the end of the species: the LHC. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a 17-mile-long ring-shaped tunnel under the Franco-Swiss border that is designed to collide together subatomic particles with the intent of recreating conditions on Earth that haven't been seen since the Big Bang. The idea is that if we accelerate beams of subatomic particles toward each other (in the LHC's case, the beams consist of Hadrons, a family of particles that includes the proton and the neutron), the resulting collisions should produce particles we've never seen before. Since long before the LHC was turned on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in September of last year, popular interest in the collider has been limited to its aspects that can be made to sound fashionably dangerous. For instance, the LHC's activation was challenged last year on the grounds that it might accidentally create a tiny black hole that could gobble up the planet. The chances of this happening are effectively nil, but because the public likes to hear about any science that can be made to sound like science fiction, it was widely reported in popular media that the particle physicists' new toy was a horseman of the apocalypse. The trend started eight years ago with Dan Brown's bestselling mystery novel Angels and Demons, in which a major plot thread involves a bomb planted in the Vatican that contains some of CERN's "antimatter," an exotic form of matter which, when combined with "regular" matter, results in the emission of tremendous amounts of energy. Because it has been in vogue to talk about the LHC within the context of its (imagined) potential to destroy the world, the public has lost sight of the collider's real implications. With a price tag approaching $10 billion and with the apparatus out of commission for at least a year after an electrical fault last fall, it is reasonable to ask what the point is of funding a particle collider when the world economy is in need of a bailout big enough to put a smile on John Maynard Keynes' lifeless face. Acclaimed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently summarized his faith in the LHC when he said, "throughout history, people have studied pure science from a desire to understand the Universe, rather than for practical applications, or commercial gain. But their discoveries have later turned out to have great practical benefits." He admitted that although "it is difficult to see an economic return from research at the LHC, [...] that doesn't mean there won't be any." In fact, were it not for another CERN project 17 years ago that was originally intended for use only within the scientific community, the Internet in its current form would never have come to exist. The World Wide Web was first conceived by MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee, then at CERN, which had the revolutionary idea of hyperlinking individual documents together. This evolved, in a couple of decades, into the vast store of human knowledge accessible via a global network of billions of computers that is responsible today for siphoning our time away from finishing our papers Although scientists are generally wary of discussing the possibility that the experiments at CERN might probe matters that have thus far been firmly within the realm of speculative sci-fi novels—parallel universes, wormholes, and the like—the truth is that the LHC does in fact seek to answer some of the greatest unresolved questions of physics—questions that have had philosophers and laypeople alike scratching their heads for millennia. What is the true nature of space and time? What is matter made of? Of course, these questions have been rephrased by physicists in a more precise form, but their essence is the same. To answer questions like these is an ambitious goal, but if we want to reap the benefits of scientific progress in the future, we need to plant seeds today. And to plant seeds today does not entail doing what the recent Collins-Nelson Amendment tried to do to the president's $800 billion stimulus package. Cutting funding in the stimulus package for NASA by 50 percent and for the National Science Foundation by a shameless 100 percent does not bring us any closer to securing the long-term advancement of the species. Had the world collectively displayed the foresight of the scientific community a few decades ago, we wouldn't be in this global warming jam at all. In a time of exorbitant expenditure on the order of trillions of dollars by corporate executives interested in securing their plans for after retirement, let's hope it isn't naive to ask the species and our government to help us secure our plans for after this decade. Adrian Haimovich is a School of Engineering and Applied Science junior majoring in applied mathematics. Vedant Misra is a Columbia College senior majoring in physics and mathematics. Nova runs alternate Wednesdays.

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