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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

Investing in science is worth every penny

Politicians are faced with hard choices. How should they spend public money? Investing in science is an excellent choice not only for the long-term but also for immediate returns.

Of course, if you are asking what will the Higgs boson put on humanity’s plate, the answer is easy: nobody knows. When the finance minister asked Michael Faraday about the practical value of electricity in 1850, he had an idea, but he replied: “One day sir, you may tax it.”

At least, the discovery of the Higgs boson means that we now have a complete theory to explain how visible matter works. Hence, humanity can go to bed knowing a little more about the Universe we live in.

But there are plenty of indirect returns stemming from all the research activities in particle physics. Many of them have just been summarised in a new brochure called “Accelerating science and innovation – Societal benefits of European research in particle physics”.

The brochure was presented by CERN to European science and technology ministers last week of May in Brussels on the occasion of a special meeting of the CERN Council hosted by the European Commission.

The World Wide Web, invented at CERN more than 20 years ago, is estimated to have stimulated €1.5 trillion in annual commercial traffic. This is 1500 times larger than the billion CHF spent on research annually at CERN.

Around 10,000 accelerators using technology developed for particle physics are now in operation for medical use in hospitals worldwide.

Thanks to physics, X-rays and radiotherapy are used everyday for cancer treatment and medical imaging. Hadron therapy, where protons or carbon ions are used instead of photons as in conventional radiotherapy, is the latest promising technique developed recently and is set to greatly improve therapy for certain types of cancer. Such accelerators developed in collaboration with CERN are already in used by MedAustron in Austria and CNAO in Italy.


The CNAO accelerator used for hadron therapy developed in partnership with CERN provides a more efficient way to kill cancerous cells.

Even antimatter research is put to good use. The ACE experiment performed at CERN’s antimatter facility showed that antiprotons could be powerful in destroying tumours.

Particle physics at CERN has helped produce more efficient solar energy panels and is now developing desk-top accelerators to enable hospitals to produce locally their own single doses of radioactive isotopes as needed.

CERN engineers are testing high temperature superconducting cables of magnesium diboride. This kind of research could lead to electricity being carried over large distances without energy loss.


The solar panels used by the Geneva airport for heating use a technology created to improve the vacuum in CERN accelerators beam pipes.

Accelerator technology is also used for various industrial clean-up projects. In trials in Texas, electron beams have converted highly infectious sewage sludge into safe-to-handle agricultural fertiliser. Efforts are also underway with the n-TOF facility at CERN to transmute highly radioactive nuclear waste into safe materials.

These are but a few of the many applications stemming from research conducted in particle physics facilities. Not to mention training a supply of people ready for technological challenges, stimulating students and teachers interest and igniting enthusiasm for physics all over the world.

So it was great news last week that CERN Council adopted the European Strategy for Particle Physics at its special meeting hosted by the European Commission. The benefits are multiplied when nations pool their efforts and resources in the pursuit of fundamental knowledge.

Pauline Gagnon

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  • Investment in science is utterly destructive of society. The Italian Renaissance destroyed God in the West, schism after war after apostasy. The Eastern Orthodox Church has no perspective in graphics, much less an applicable calendar, and is utterly stable. The Spanish Inquisition forcibly removed erudition from Spain (Moors and Jews). Following 60 years of New World plunder, the wealth of half a planet, left Spain unaltered. England bought into the Industrial Revolution and repeatedly imploded. The East German Stasi economically surveiled its population with stukachi. The US Obama administration spends hundreds of $billions on Homeland Severity, drones, NSA communication interception, TSA physical shakedowns of tens of millions of people/year, IRS domestic terrorism. It knows nothing.

    Save the Earth! Repeal the Industrial Revolution, make no machine in the image of a human mind; absolutely abolish science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; outlaw toilets. All will be well when we stop worshipping Hell. The poor, diseased, addicted, addled, and unproductive must be given unlimited succor above all else. (We could turn our backs upon hind gut fermenters, but that would not honor diversity.)

  • Thanks for sharing your views on this. How would you manage to voice your opinion on this if you did not have a computer and the Web to see this blog and share your ideas? The Web is one of those many technological developments coming from CERN.

    Cheers, Pauline

  • paarwan

    Pauline – If this is the same Uncle Al I know from other places, then I’ll say he is preemptively striking against all the trolls that inevitably follow such posts. I’ll say “outlaw toilets” gives it away. If not, then …

    Nice, post, by the way!

  • Carlos Pronsato

    Uncle Al. I agree with you to a point. But when you say outlaw toilets! Which law are you talking about? Not roman law! they invented the toilet and the bidet!

  • Thank you for your comment and warning. I agree with you that asking to ban toilets sorts of gives it away. But every one is entitled to their opinion.

    glad you liked the post, Pauline

  • Al D.

    How could I decide whether to study physics or engineering at undergrad level?

  • This is just a lobbyist propaganda. Investing into cold fusion, magnetic motors and antigravity engines is worth every penny – the investments into re-search of Higgs boson, gravitational waves and/or string theory are demonstratively useless waste of public money.

  • Hello,

    I started in engineering school and ended up switching to physics. I think the main difference is that in engineering, you get to design practical things and solve concrete problems. In physics, you get to think about unsolved problems and think of ways to solve them. As an engineer, you will probably do more designing and management of projects for very practical situations: build roads or an electrical power plant or a dam. your role will be to make sure the project get accomplished the way you think it should be.

    As a physicist, you will deal with more abstract concepts. Your job will be first to learn how the physical world works then see how to answer unanswered questions. Your job will be to find ways to take knowledge a few steps forward. This will probably not be done alone but within a research group, and a large one if you go to particle physics. As an experimental physicist, I got to build things too, like detectors and that was great too. A theorist gets to think about ways how to fill in gaps in the knowledge, build models and theories to explain the world.

    I hope this helps. For sure, you can try one year in one program and see if that interests you or not, and switch if need be.

    Good luck, Pauline

  • Sorry you thought this was just propaganda. I personally feel proud to see that the research we do in particle physics at CERN and elsewhere not only helps develop knowledge, which is important in itself, but also finds all sorts of interesting applications. If we did not have the curiosity to learn more about the world we live in, we would just be like other animals, just looking for food and shelter. Scientific knowledge like all knowledge and creative activities (be it in psychology, archeology, anthropology, or any type of knowledge) is what is making life interesting.

    Fundamental research is important for two main reasons in my opinion: for the knowledge and to open up new avenues for applied research. You suggest only applied research is worthwhile. Both are needed. The important difference is that fundamental research allows to break new ground and open up possibilities for new and interesting applied research afterwards.

    Cheers, Pauline

  • Ulmo Waters

    I know a troll when I see one. I see a troller of trolls too. Where does one draw the line?

  • Ulmo Waters

    Great post. Is the mood in Europe regarding science funding really declining like it is in North America? Among the people that matter, I mean – those that approve the grants and the like?

  • Venkita Giri R

    Kudos to Cern. Cern scientists are doing exceptional service to mankind. Literally, the Cern scientists have donned the mantle of God to find out the impossible! The five thousand years old Vedic texts say that man and God are not separate entities! All along it has been proved by scientists.

  • Nicolaas Vroom

    The above article claims:
    “we now have a complete theory to explain how visible matter works.”
    What does this sentence mean? Specific the word theory. Chemical reactions depend about concentrations, pressures and temperatures, but do we exactly know how and when? I do not think so. And then there is the word “visible matter” what does that mean. When I light a match does this mean that the match changes from invisible matter to visible matter. I think the word visible should be banned because it is a typical human concept and has (almost) nothing to do with how the physical reality evolves.

    The next sentence claims:
    “Hence, humanity can go to bed knowing a little more about the Universe we live in.”
    The most important issue for humans is the understanding of the needs of other humans. The understanding of physics comes second.

    Keep up the spirit.

  • Toni

    Nice Article Pauline,

    I just like to add to it that CERN also trains people. It is a vivid place with people like Phd/master/bachelor/summer students, enigneers, IT, … coming and going.
    Large part of these people return to their home country with the experience they gain of being at CERN. Profiting from the stimulating atmosphere, discussions and the excellent support in CERN they can use their experience back in their own country and build on this in firms or universities.

    Another comment is that the PET scan is a good and I think better example than ACE since it had already proven is merits. It is a marvelous illustration of how Dirac`s antimatter equations has led us to a tool that saves lives.
    Concering ACE; the creation of antiprotons still requires a large amount of high energy protons (10^4-10^5 proton for one antiproton maybe?) therefore it is for the future to tell how applicable “medical” antiprotons will be…

  • Hello Nicolaas,

    thank you for sharing your views on this.

    visible matter here simply refers to ordinary matter that can produces electromagnetic radiation as opposed to dark matter, that does not emit light. I will have a new blog on this tomorrow.