Was finding the Higgs worth the cost?

July 5, 2012

That’s today’s question from wife and (non-physicist) friends alike. Or: “What did we really achieve?” Or: “What of benefit to mankind came out of it?”

Of course, I’m biased.

My response: “Was going to the Moon worth the cost?” (And, OK, for those who don’t believe we sent men there, we definitely at the least sent craft there, which is a good enough common denominator for me.)

It’s a judgment call. There’s no correct answer.

Personally, I’m glad that as a toddler I got to sit in front of a TV and watch the Moon landing. Likewise, I’m glad that my two boys got to sit with me yesterday afternoon in front of the 2012 equivalent (a laptop) and watch the CERN announcements live.

For those uninterested in the bigger issue of the achievements of mankind, the “economic spin-off” argument is usually where this ends up. Moon landing: Integrated circuits? Sort of essential today. Velcro? My wife appreciated that one more than the integrated circuits (while, er, browsing her laptop).

Particle physics: The World Wide Web? Kind of a useful invention from CERN, the same geekopolis that last night brought you the Higgs. Big data? Gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes … these have been the bread and butter of particle physicists for decades.

What about sit-coms? When I was a kid, Larry Hagman was the astronaut in I Dream of Jeannie. Today, I’m still stupefied that the prime-time sit-com of our day is about particle physicists. (And still get that “what-ya-talking-about-Willis” look from my wife when I laugh at the physics jokes.)

I guess that’s the cultural influence you get when a formerly purely technical field approaches its zenith of worldwide funding and attention.

Will the golden days of particle physics go down in history and folklore like the golden days of the space race?

I think it will be pretty similar.

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