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Big Science Paves The Way Forward

Big science in orbit: the <a href="">Hubble Space Telescope</a>
Big science in orbit: the Hubble Space Telescope

Arguments are often heard against big (read: expensive) scientific projects, especially those without an immediate pay off. "Why spend so much money building this machine or spacecraft, when there are so many pressing social issues we must deal with?"

On top of that, there are often political pressures that come into play with big science. Representatives and senators seek to place projects in their constituency, or work to fend off the loss of a project past its prime. The result is that big projects are often spread across different states and contractors, creating a complex web of competing — and often conflicting — interests.

A painful example of somewhat recent vintage was the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). Construction of this behemoth particle collider in Waxahachie, Texas, was called off in 1993 after an expenditure of about $2 billion. Had it gone through, the SSC would have achieved energies about three times as large as those that the Higgs-boson-finding Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will achieve at full blast.

Based on recent results at the LHC, which will be stretched to the max to explore the properties of the Higgs boson, colliding energies three times as large would have been very useful indeed. Although much more data is to be gotten, especially after next year's LHC energy boost, a factor of three in collision energy would have helped clear up what may become a murky situation.

The fact is that good science needs both small and big science.

Over the past 400 years, men and women have built a unique body of knowledge that has deeply transformed humanity. Based on the formulation and subsequent empirical validation of hypotheses, the scientific method amounts to a process that allows for ever-more-accurate descriptions of natural phenomena: from Newton's gravity to Einstein's relativity, from simple mechanics to quantum mechanics, from Darwinian natural selection to genetics, this accumulation of knowledge led inevitably to the technologies that define our lives.

These scientific advances — and corresponding changes in our worldview — didn't happen by chance. Scientific ideas, even when beautiful and compelling, are only useful while not proved wrong or incomplete. There are no final explanations; only those that work within what we can test. As technology advances, these tests become more refined. This increase in precision allows scientists to find cracks in their explanations. And it is from these cracks that new ideas and theories emerge.

Without the constant drive to refine technologies, to go beyond current limitations, we are unable to test new ideas. Consequently, our knowledge of the world stagnates.

The Hubble Space Telescope, the Martian rovers, the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs boson, the Kepler mission — searching for other Earths around our cosmic neighborhood, the Human Genome Project, are all big science projects that have captured the public imagination worldwide; and all are absolutely essential to the advancement of science.

Big science should never take away funds slated for relevant social projects. But it needn't be a "this or that" kind of Solomonic choice. It can be a "this and that," as long as our priorities are focused on the right targets. There are many ways to slice the federal budget pie. The choices are ours, through those we elect to represent our opinions in Washington.

If we stop asking the kinds of questions that only big science can answer and concentrate only on the immediate, the pragmatic and the cheap, we will be impoverishing ourselves, choosing to look at the world with incurable shortsightedness. A society that stops trying to answer big questions goes into retrograde motion; and deprives itself of so much of the wonderment that comes from the search for answers.

Pyramids and cathedrals weren't cheap either, but they generated awe, knowledge and, yes, revenue. They still do. In our age, we have giant particle accelerators and space telescopes, our monuments erected to the pursuit of knowledge and its technological offspring. How far we go depends on how far we set our goals.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.