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September 23, 2008

After last week, $8 billion for a broken collider doesn't sound like so much.....

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

The Large Hadron Collider won't be unlocking some of the mysteries of the Universe for a while. It's broken. LHC's operators says they'll need at least two months to warm the collider up from its near-absolute-zero temperatures and fix a portion of it.  (Update:  CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said late today (9/23) that the collider will not be ready to re-start until spring 2009).

A section of the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France.   (CERN Photo)

A section of the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France. (CERN Photo)

It's been called the biggest science project ever: $8 billion in funds and years in research, some of it from the US Department of Energy. The potential payoff? Unlocking some of the deepest-held secrets of physics, like how matter comes together.

After a week in which we committed, or considered committing, as much as a trillion dollars toward cleaning up the financial industry's mess (most of it from U.S. taxpayers), we're looking back at the wide range of opinions that this blog's readers rolled out about the project. There were four basic groups:

1) Folks who wanted to turn the collider into a religious (or anti-religious) statement. I'm not going there, and I regret that so many commentors took a science blog in that direction.

2) Those who feared that the collider would create a black hole, then suck us all into it. The depth of scientific due diligence on the project says that this is an impossibility.

3) Many who were genuinely stoked about the potential for discovery here. I'm with you.

and 4)  Those who thought that $8 billion is too much to spend on something like this.

It's this last group that I want to address:  sure, there are lots of things we could spend $8 billion on now - like feeding several billion of our fellow citizens and beginning to help them out of poverty. Or maybe one-tenth of the money the Feds dumped into bailing out AIG last week. But let's put the collider money into perspective. Here are a few other things we buy with that kind of money:

- A little over four years of domestic sales of Doritos.
- Approximately two-thirds of the annual gambling revenues in the state of Nevada.
- About three days of US oil imports.
- About a month's worth of US cigarette sales.
- About ten months' worth of US lung cancer treatment costs. (A worthy effort to be sure, but one that wouldn't be nearly as costly if it weren't for the cigarette numbers above.)

What's my point? The collider's broken. It may or may not come close to the goals and dreams its many scientists aspired to reach. But the only gamble here is with money, and this is one that's well worth taking.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

Filed under: economy • Large Hadron Collider • Physics


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