Why Particle Physics is Important

A personal view from Craig Dukes

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.
- Henri Poincaré.

As particle physicists we delight in discovering new aspects of nature, fundamental aspects of nature that are common to everything - the building blocks of the universe.

We are fortunate to be living in a society where we no longer must struggle just to survive from day to day, but where our prosperity has allowed time and money for more: art, literature, music, science. Is the money spent on particle physics justified? I would reply with a resounding Yes! even if the only return was the pleasure of an increased understanding of nature. But there are technological spin-offs that have more than returned all of the money that has been spent on the pursuit of this knowledge. The most oustanding example is the invention of the World Wide Web at CERN in the late 1980's.

[IMG] The builder of Fermilab, R.R. Wilson, perhaps explained best why studying fundamental physics is so important in his testimony before the Congress of the United States in 1969. Congress was looking for some sort of justification in spending $200 million. What follows is an excert from Wilson's testimony before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
Pastore: Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of this country?
Wilson: No sir; I do not belive so.
Pastore: Nothing at all?
Wilson: Nothing at all.
Pastore: It has no value in that respect?
Wilson: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military, I am sorry.
Pastore: Don't be sorry for it.
Wilson: I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.
Pastore: Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?
Wilson: Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

It is my sincerist belief that when the history of our time is written, many many years from now, it will be regarded, with perhaps some envy, as the golden age of science. We are fortunate to live in such exciting times and to play our part in making these great discoveries.

To learn more about particle physics click here for an interactive tour of quarks, neutrinos, antimatter, extra dimensions, dark matter, accelerators and particle detectors.