The most frequently asked question

15 - 12 - 2011


By: Frank Linde, director Nikhef

A guaranteed question after all (ok, almost all) of my public lectures is: “What is the societal impact of …?” In Tuesday night’s Dutch talkshow “Pauw & Witteman” Jolande Sap (member of Dutch parliament) asked Robbert Dijkgraaf (chairman of the KNAW, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) exactly this question. I already saw it on Jolande’s face while Robbert was giving his excellent explanation (and that for a theorist who, as far as I know, never dealt with the practicalities of experimental (particle) physics) on the impact of the events which took place earlier that day at CERN: the joint announcement of the ATLAS and CMS collaborations that first hints of the Higgs particle had been observed.

What Higgs? – What can we do with the Higgs?

How to answer this question properly? My first reaction is often: “What is the use of (classical) music, art, making love, theatre, etc.?” I.e. many things in life we simply do for relaxation, pleasure and fun. Personally, I think that is exactly what differentiates mankind from animals. And incidentally: it is probably also why we evolved over history to what we are today: a highly sophisticated society.

I fear, for many this is not sufficient and certainly not in today’s economic climate. So let me try better.

Somewhere around 1881 James Clerk Maxwell published an integrated theory of electricity and magnetism. This was the culmination of more than a century of experimental and theoretical research by numerous people. Maxwell’s new theoretical framework predicted the existence of “electro-magnetic waves”: an oscillatory phenomenon traveling at the speed of light, even in vacuum. Maxwell’s prediction’s societal impact was instant throughout the decades after: radio, television, microwaves, radar, mobile phones, optical communications, etc. Incidentally: ordinary light is also an electro-magnetic wave.

Who can imagine our society without all this?
Maxwell initiated a concept we particle physicists now call unification: a desire to incorporate the fundamental forces of Nature into a single unified theory i.e. formula.

Another example: in 1905 Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity. This time the societal impact took much longer. But thanks to Einstein: our GPS works properly; we have sufficient electrical power (albeit, since Fukushima I cease to be an advocate of nuclear power …); we have a plethora of nuclear-based healthcare machinery and treatment; etc. I cannot resist also mentioning the impact of the initially purely theoretical concept of antimatter (Paul Dirac, 1928): the so-called PET (positron emission tomography) which makes use of the anti-electron, coined positron, to visualize transport inside the human body. I can add: most (all?) non-invasive tools in medicine go back to nuclear physics (roentgen, NMRI, CT, SPECT, PET, …).
And last but not least: the World Wide Web, the biggest economic boom (and bust), in mankind was launched at CERN in 1989. And there is more.

But is this enough to guarantee future societal impact of ingenuity-driven research like CERN’s hunt for the Higgs particle?

Future will tell. Meanwhile, our universities and institutes like Nikhef train numerous, and often incredibly smart, youngsters to become original, independent researchers. Many of them opted for physics because of the challenges and progress in the quest for the fundamental building blocks of our Universe and their interactions! About 50% of Nikhef’s PhD students eventually pursue a career in private industries like Philips, ASML, Shell, finance and consulting companies to directly boost the Dutch economic activity. If that is still insufficient, the income tax paid by Nikhef graduates working in private industry alone corresponds more-or-less to Nikhef’s gross annual budget!

Finally: Are endeavors like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project expensive? Surely with an investment tag in the multibillion Euro range, the LHC machine isn’t cheap. But is it expensive? The LHC design started in the eighties of the last century. It was built between 1994-2008 (re-using the old LEP underground tunnel!). First turned on in September 2008 with a major incident soon after. As of November 2009 the LHC is operating smoothly at ½ of its design energy. In 2014 the LHC is expected to reach its design specifications. At present “standard” LHC operations are expected to continue until 2030. Around that time one of the options is to double the LHC energy and to run it for at least another decade. Hence we are talking about an one-of-a-kind worldwide 50-year project. Can one do research more efficiently than that? I do not think so. LHC investment costs amount to about 20 k€ per physicist per year, similar to the instrumentation expenses of many other experimenters. Of course there is a price to pay: particle physicists have to collaborate, to work incredibly hard to secure funding even in harsh economic times, to have the endurance to patiently work towards that fabulous moment that the facility is switched on and hopefully starts to deliver the physics it was built for. And in my opinion it is more than worth it: the first Z-events (1989) and WW-events (1994) at LEP or the first hints of the Higgs at the LHC (2011). And for you?

Finally: Robbert’s answer in response to Jolande’s question also boldly referred to nuclear power (a reality these days, even for those, like me, who dislike it).