|How to spend the science budget|
It seems that CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), just outside Geneva, is not large enough. When it was constructed, with its 28 km circumference tunnel, it was designed to be big enough to find out whether or not the Higgs boson existed. This had been predicted to exist, as theory said that it was the particle needed to give mass to all the other sub-atomic particles. No, I have no idea either. Where we once just had protons, electrons and neutrons, we now have a menagerie of particles. They came into view when physicists started to fire the particles they knew about at each other to see what happened. The LHC is the latest and most powerful version of the technology used for the task.
Unfortunately, although the Higgs boson has been found, not much else has since turned up. In fact all of the particles predicted by the so-called Standard Model have now been found. And all of them behave exactly in the way predicted by the Standard Model. Which you might think is a good thing. But no, the Standard Model doesn’t tell us why particles (e.g. electrons) are far more abundant in the universe than their corresponding anti-particles (e.g. positrons). Neither does it tell us what (if they exist at all) dark matter or dark energy may be. And if dark matter exists, then the theorists tell us that it makes up more than half of the matter in the Universe. But why do we need something like dark matter? Well without it there is no current explanation of why the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. We need something which can explain how the effect of gravity is being counteracted. And gravity itself is not explained by the standard model. In fact, there is a complete disconnect between the large scale world of Einstein’s relativity (including gravity) and the quantum realm.
Despite the most rigorous of testing, not the slightest deviation has been shown from what Relativity theory predicts. It says though that gravity is not a force in the normal sense, but something which warps the space around it in order to influence the movement of planets, stars and anything else in the vicinity. But the space which is supposedly warped is, by definition, nothing, so I’m not sure how that works, except in the fevered brains of mathematicians. Likewise, quantum theory has never been shown to be wrong. Strangely, though, it seems to rely on the only relatively recent availability of human observation of things in order to fix them in a state as either waves or particles, or indeed finally to see whether Schrödinger's cat is dead or alive.
Bridging the gap between the nano world and the macro world requires a new theory of everything. There is the suggestion that the expansion of the Universe can be explained if the gravitational constant is not constant, but varies depending where or when you are in the universe. Nobody seems to like this idea. We like laws which are, literally, universal, although the supposed universality of physical laws is only a belief. And the only other theories proposed are the exotic ones which are the whole basis for Sheldon’s life in Big Bang Theory. They are all though in principle untestable, as they lie outside of our version of reality. They are such things as one dimensional strings, an extra 7 (or possibly 9) dimensions or an infinite number of branching universes. The extra universes apparently come into existence every time there is a quantum event – which is all the time. Quite where the extra matter and energy keep coming from, I don’t know. And where the extra dimensions are I can’t quite imagine. It’s all rather reminiscent of the mediaeval counting of angels on pinheads.
It’s a mess, which is why the physicists want to turn the power up by spending £21 billion on a new improved collider, with a circumference of 100 km, It would accelerate protons to virtually the speed of light and so produce head-on collisions of immensely greater power than is now possible. In this way it is hoped that ‘Dark’ particles will appear from the wreckage of the collisions and so light the way to a new theory. But it is a leap of faith, as no-one has a theory which predicts any outcome from such collisions. It’s let’s do it and hope for something new to turn up. Personally, I would prefer there to be at least some sort of testable outcome from a theory before that sort of money is committed by us in the UK and in the other 19 European countries which support CERN. But not only is CERN making a proposal of this sort, but the Chinese government already has plans for a 100 km collider and Japan is proposing to take a decision on a $7 billion linear collider this year. So then there’s already a lot going on. Indeed, it sounds a bit like the space race again.
And in the meantime, we have some quite practical problems to solve here on Earth. The World Economic Forum has issued its top ten list of risks in order of likelihood. At the top are –
1. Extreme weather events (floods, storms etc.)
2. Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation.
3. major natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis and geomagnetic storms).
To these I would add the risk of a major increase in disease from the lack of new antibiotics.. All of these risks require a political will to act, but to really address the problems caused by most of these, a lot of money needs to be invested in research.
Let’s start with my suggestion that research into the production of antibiotics should be pursued. We need to have far more antibiotics in the armoury in order to ring the changes in treatment regimes and avoid complete disaster in, apparently, about 10 years’ time. These antibiotics certainly exist, because, just like penicillin which was produced by a fungus, there are loads more fungi which have ‘developed’ chemical defences against attacks by our common enemy, the bacteria. The business model for doing research in this field is, unfortunately, not encouraging. Antibiotics are normally only taken for 7 days. They are used for acute illness rather than the far more financially rewarding drugs used to treat chronic conditions. In fact, large pharmaceutical companies no longer see a benefit from doing this kind of science – except where governments will pay them to do the work. In exchange, the State gets the rights to the drugs so that it can, in turn, have them manufactured in the relatively small quantities required. This has started in various countries, but needs to be ramped up very considerably.
Then we have global warming, which underlies a number of the risks cited by the World Economic Forum. This is where massive amounts of money could conceivably make a difference. We need much better battery technology to enable ‘green’ energy to be stored as it is produced, if not then needed, and so encourage the further development of green energy production. We need to work on methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so that temperature increases can be limited and even reversed. There is already some investment in these major potential life-lines, but far more needs to be done.
Now, I too feel the siren call of pure research into how the Universe works, but it is at this point that Sheldon from Big Bang Theory comes to mind again. He always downplayed the importance of engineering and other branches of science in favour of pure research in Physics. In fact though, although pure research is necessary in order to enable us to see what we might be able to do, biology, chemistry and engineering are equally important if we are to benefit from the insights we have been provided with by the Sheldons of this world. Perhaps it’s time to concentrate a bit more on seeing how we can rescue ourselves from imminent disaster.