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.
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