Friday, September 30, 2011

"Tevatron atom smasher shuts after more than 25 years" - BBC

Tevatron atom smasher shuts after more than 25 years

Another blow for American scientific research, both in the U.S. and the rest of the New World.  The Tevatron is/was the second most powerful particle accelerator in the world, operated by Fermilab, and it smashed atoms together at near-light speed right here in the midwestern United States.  And it will be shut down for good possibly by the end of the day today.

This comes after news in April that SETI, the project to listen for extra-terrestrial radio signals, halted operations, and lacks the funding to continue.

Both of these examples have something in common:  they're extremely difficult-to-defend scientific projects.  People don't know what the point is of smashing atoms together to try to see the bits that come off, or listening for a signal that might never come, and would take decades, centuries, or longer to send a message back if one ever came.  I'll admit, sometimes I don't know what the point is either.  But then I remember something.

Two centuries ago, people knew what electricity was.  Well, some people did.  It was used in scientists' labs to make frogs' legs switch.  It was used at fancy parties to give people a little shock or tingle, or make their hair stand up.  You could see little sparks go from one electrode to another.  It was a quaint little party trick, but nobody could really imagine any use for it.  Less than a hundred years later, electric light was powering a city street, its utility was proved, and new industries of electric power and electric machines were born.

Electricity was a long shot.  It felt like magic to many people, the same way that the quantum mechanics, the behavior of atoms and electrons, feel like magic to you or me.  The more you learn about atoms, the bits that make them up, and how they interact, the less it all makes sense.  And it seems crazy that you could learn anything useful from trying to study them.

But atoms, like electricity, were studied anyway.  And research in atoms and their properties led us to create a devastating weapon, and a source of relatively clean energy.

And now we live in the "Information Age," where computer processing power translates into real power.  And we got here through engineering breakthroughs, with not much help from the developments in quantum theory (what these colliders are working on) along the way.  But there is talk of "quantum computing" on the horizon, a development based on quantum theory that would revolutionize the computer industry, increasing their processing abilities by orders of magnitude, and making possible calculations that are impossible on current machines.

And SETI, well, listening for space aliens is still a long shot.  We may not hear anything for thousands of years, or ever.  But, what if we do?  What if we catch an alien broadcast?  What would that mean for the world?  Could we get over our disputes and grievances, put an end to petty politics, and finally work together as one humanity toward a common goal of mutual prosperity and expansion beyond the globe?

Well, yeah, that's a bit far-fetched, but it's easy to imagine and might have a pinch of truth to it.
And finally, when you consider the costs of these projects, compared to what it takes to grow our food, power our homes, educate our children, and especially fly our planes and soldiers into foreign countries, funding particle accelerators and radio telescopes and staff to run them is really not so much.  Scientific programs in this country get by with a pittance, but they show amazing results.  And now we seem to be content letting other countries take the scientific helm, as the Large Hadron Collider continues smashing atoms, and China's and India's space programs get off the ground.

I agree that budgets all over the country are in crisis right now, and people are struggling, so I won't push for this over all other causes.  But when we get things sorted out again, let's not forget where science got us, even when it seemed like a waste of time.

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