Fundamental research: what is the use?

by Hwong Yi Ling

Illustration by Kong Yink Heay

Illustration by Kong Yink Heay

When I was working at CERN, the perennial question posed to me by friends and family was, “What is the use of fundamental research?” Despite my slight indignation over the seeming short-sightedness of the question, it is not difficult to see where people are coming from. With the financial crisis wreaking havoc on our economy, spending $4.4 billion to build an accelerator to hunt for a particle (although the Large Hadron Collider does have many other purposes, but that’s beside the point) does seem like a frivolous endeavour. Without any immediate application in sight, one would question if the money could have been better used to solve more pressing problems of our time?

We are living in a competitive world where the value of our pursuits are judged by its practical usefulness and potential monetary return on investment. When asked by the then British prime minister what was the practical value of electricity, Michael Faraday famously replied, “One day, sir, you may tax it.” That quote alone captures the idiosyncrasies of our politicians and what makes them tick. More than a century later, we are still haunted by the same conundrum.

It is simultaneously a favourite buzz-phrase and an uncontested truth that a vibrant and competitive society thrives on innovation. What is less apparent, though, is the fact that fundamental research lies at the heart of all innovations. It needs innovation and drives innovation. History has taught us that big leaps in human innovation is often the result of pure curiosity. Faraday’s experiments on electricity, for example, were prompted by curiosity but eventually brought us electric light. No amount of research on candles could have done that. Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity is the crux of the multi-billion dollar growth industry centered around the Global Positioning System (GPS).

What is less apparent, though, is the fact that fundamental research lies at the heart of all innovations.

Human history is littered with such examples. And yet we still struggle to justify investments in basic research. Households in the United States spent more than $5.1 billion on ice cream in 2012 alone[1]. It puts things into perspective when you compare that amount with the cost of the Large Hadron Collider ($4.4 billion), a project that spans decades, involves scientists and engineers from over 100 countries and has already produced several spin-off technologies.

The goal of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is to find out more about the constituents of our universe and to test the predictions and limits of the Standard Model[2], a theory that to date best explains the fundamental structure of matters. To do this, scientists try to recreate the initial conditions right after the Big Bang by accelerating two beams of protons in opposite directions to almost the speed of light and then colliding them. The technology involved in achieving this is no mean feat: the particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 10 kilometres apart with such precision that they meet halfway!

To build such a machine, it was only natural that scientists and engineers had to use the most advanced technology available. And when a technology that was required did not exist, companies around the world were commissioned to custom build it. Some serious pushing of the frontiers of technology was happening here.

Photo by Jeffery Goh/Flickr

Photo by Jeffery Goh/Flickr

And all was not in vain. CERN’s research has already brought about many practical applications. Great strides have been made in the field of medical imaging and cancer therapy thanks to the advancement in accelerator physics. CERN is collaborating with institutes from around the world in the development of Hadron therapy (or proton therapy), a form of radiotherapy that more precisely localise the radiation dosage and thus reduce the damage to surrounding tissues. The Medipix chip, a spin-off of the detector electronics used in the LHC, is finding increasing application in the fields of radiography and computer tomography (CT). On the clean energy front, the vacuum technology used in the LHC has been applied to develop solar panels that reach a temperature of 350 – 400 degrees Celsius, over 100 degrees higher than what current commercially available solar panels can achieve. And who can forget the World Wide Web? You would not be reading this if not for the invention of the Web at CERN some 20 years ago.

The reason people do science is the unbridled joy of discovering how the universe works.

But none of these discoveries are more illuminating than the fact that none of them were planned. None of them were a result of deliberate SWOT analysis or cost-benefit study. And therein lies the beauty of fundamental research. People don’t do fundamental research for the possible spin-off, or fame, or money. The reason people do science is the unbridled joy of discovering how the universe works. It is a manifestation of the quintessential part of being human: curiosity and wonder. We are all researchers at heart. The arcane formulas, crazy greek symbols and code languages are just the tools of the trade. The truth is, the first time you stare into a starry sky and wonder what is out there, you are already one. And if in the pursuit of scientific truth we do produce something ‘useful’, and I believe we inevitably will, isn’t that just a happy happenstance?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way the official policy or position of CERN.

Footnote:

[1] Statistics published by Grocery Headquarters; SymphonyIRI Group.

[2]  A mathematical description of the elementary particles of matter and the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces by which they interact.

About the Author:

Yi Ling Hwong graduated from the University of Applied Sciences Karlsruhe, Germany with a Master in Power Engineering. She worked for 6 months in the Cryogenics group of CERN as a technical student and 3 years as a data acquisition engineer in the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment of the LHC. She is now a web editor for the Doctors without Borders organisation. Find out more about Yi Ling by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at:http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/cirnelle/profile/