Research Fortnight - 10 Sep 08 - Editorial

Large hype collusion

Today is Big Bang day. In scientific terms, this long-awaited attempt to send a beam around the Large Hadron Collider at Cern for the first time is a significant milestone in what has been a large and successful international collaboration.

However, the day itself has come to resemble more of a post-modern work of art. With non-stop live coverage on the BBC, widespread, if unsubstantiated concerns that the beam may consume the world in hellfire, and a jaunty rap accompaniment viewed by hundreds of thousands on YouTube, Big Bang day has assumed all the trappings of full-blown modern mass media circus.

All of this razzmatazz may serve only to obscure the actual historical significance of today's event. The LHC isn't going to eviscerate the planet and, whatever else you may hear this week, it is unlikely to take us very much closer to an understanding of the origins of the universe.

Unlike (we hope) the beams that will be sent around the ring beneath Switzerland and France this morning, the experimental and theoretical wings of high-energy physics have been tending to diverge, rather than find focus. There hasn't been much progress since Einstein's death in establishing a much-sought unified theory that will reconcile the two main pillars of the discipline, general relativity and electromagnetism.

As theorists, especially string theorists, go off fishing for new ideas, the idea that a sufficiently large, Earthbound atom-smasher will lend blinding intellectual insight into the origins and workings of the universe has probably had its day. As David King, the government's former science adviser, acknowledged last week, you can't just keep on building larger and larger rings; at some point, the costs become unsupportable.

The LHC very possibly marks that point. The US Superconducting SuperCollider, a machine of about twice the cost and specification, and therefore a correspondingly safer bet to find the elusive Higgs particle was abandoned by Congress in 1993. If the LHC had been a new construction project (not an upgrade of an existing ring), with its budget held properly accountable by the peoples of Europe, it might have met the same fate.

What sustained it was an international treaty, signed in 1952, that commits its 20 members to subscription charges. These charges are not prohibitive. But for the agencies that bear them, such as Britain's Science and Technology Facilities Council, they are significant.

So, after today's excitement dies down, it is time for governments to ask some questions about Cern's future.

As soon as the LHC is up and running, the Cern council will consider a proposal to dismantle it again, and install more powerful magnets that will increase the luminosity of the beam 10-fold. The organisation may also position itself to build a companion instrument, the International Linear Collider (ILC), given Cern's reliable budget, and the lack of hunger from the US, Japan or Germany to host this machine.

Before these projects proceed, Cern's members should be asking if they represent the best use of the available resources. They should bear in mind the fact that, as at other international organisations, none of Cern's 2,500 staff pays income tax. Many of them also enjoy employment perks, such as free, private education for their children.

Particle physics is a noble pursuit, but not any more so than many other branches of knowledge. Its era of exalted status is drawing to an end.