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Funding the future: Why the investigation of fundamental physics still matters

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A cosmologist, a particle physicist and an oceanographer walk into a hotel convention room. No, this isn’t the start of a bad science joke, but rather the preface to a fascinating discussion held at the Question, Explore, Discover (QED) conference; a meeting of science enthusiasts and sceptics held every year in Manchester. The topic of the discussion was what are the “big questions” that scientists should currently endeavour to answer.

Whilst cosmologist Tim O’Brien, particle physicist Jeff Forshaw discussed elements of physics such as the investigation into dark matter and dark energy and the work being conducted at the large hadron collider in Geneva, oceanographer Helen Czerski suggested that the institution of science should focus its attention on more pressing concerns such as the looming threat of climate change. In fact, Czerski seemed to suggest that investigations into fundamental physics are at this point for curiosity’s sake at best and for vanity’s sake at worst. Would it not be more worthwhile to focus on problems that could impact our ecosystems and perhaps even our very existence itself?

We must be realistic – funding of the sciences is limited and the work conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) by various teams has been extremely expensive. Forbes magazine estimate that the LHC took ten years to construct and cost $4.75 billion to build. Every year, it costs a further $1 billion to continue its operations and the various experiments which are being conducted there. This money may well make a significant impact on climate change research, not to mention the impending antibiotic resistance crisis or the development of treatments for various debilitating and life-threatening conditions.

Can we really justify spending vital funds on projects such as the LHC whilst disasters are looming on the horizon? Surely the money would be better spent on practical solutions to prescient problems?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

An example from history

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement” – Lord Kelvin in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1900.

The above quote often attributed to Lord Kelvin a prominent physicist of the 1900’s is close in context to a more easily verifiable but far less concise statement made by one of his contemporaries, Albert Michelson in a speech 1894. Both men and many of their colleagues believed that as the 19th Century faded into the 20th, physics was a completed science, all that was left to do was to improve precision.

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” – Michelson in an address to Ryerson Physics Lab, University of Chicago (1894)

There is a deep, unwavering idea of ultimate irony that Michelson spoke these words, as a few short years later in 1907, with research colleague Edward Morley, Michelson would win a Nobel prize for the most famous null hypothesis in the history of science. A result which would lead to the need for a new paradigm of physics. Or two even.

At that point, physicists were certain that light was a wave, a belief that itself would be challenged in short order. Waves, they knew, propagated in a medium and they had no reason to suspect this would not be true of light. Thus, the necessity for some medium through which light propagated, a luminiferous ether which permeated all of space. Michelson and Morley hypothesised that if this ether existed then there should be a shift in the speed of light as the Earth travels through the medium. To test this, they set up a piece of equipment called an interferometer that measured optical paths in two perpendicular directions. They found that there was no difference in the speed of light from one direction to the next.

The basic set up of Michelson and Morley’s interferometer.

It was this result that directly led to Einstein determining that the speed of light is a universal constant, which in turn led to special relativity and from there General Relativity which supplanted Newton’s laws of motion for especially fast objects and objects with tremendous mass respectively.

And Einstein’s theory of general relativity has a far greater impact on the measurement of climate change than many of us realise.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

Why select general relativity as the textbook example of the deeper investigation into the nature of reality? What makes it akin to the investigations at the LHC?

It’s important to remember that when Einstein suggested that Newton’s laws of gravity needed refinement, the scientific community initially rejected the idea because Newton’s laws were successful with great precision. Even today, Newton’s laws are sufficient to understand both local gravitational effects and interactions between moving bodies. In fact, physicist Kip Thorne suggests that general relativity wasn’t seriously investigated by theoretical physicists until 1960. This is likely because it may well have been dismissed as an unnecessary level of detail when Newton’s Universal theory of gravitation served us just fine up until the space-race started to heat up.

A simplified sketch of the effect of mass on the fabric of space. This model is clearly 2 dimensional when any accurate interpretation would have to be at least 3 dimensional.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity suggested a radically different way to view space and time themselves than the theories of physics before it and in particular Newtonian mechanics. Far from a static stage on which the events of the universe play out, general relativity tells us that space and time are affected by the events that occur on them. Both are dynamic and can be changed. The geometry of space is warped by objects of large mass. The easiest and most common way to explain this is to imagine a stretched-out rubber sheet: it’s completely flat until we place an object on it. The heavier the object the greater the indentation. Let’s place a bowling ball on our hypothetical rubber sheet. Now imagine rolling a marble past the bowling ball. The marble’s path would curve around the dent.  This is not just akin to the path of planets around a star, but also the path of light past a massive object.

A very rough sketch of the phenomena of gravitational lensing.

It was this curving of light, known as gravitational lensing that allowed Arthur Eddington to prove Einstein’s theory in 1919. Eddington took night-time measurements of the stars in the Hyades cluster. He then travelled to a small island off the coast of Africa to observe the same cluster with the sun in the line of sight. This was possible to do during the solar eclipse with the moon blocking the light from the sun. Sure enough, Eddington’s observations confirmed Einstein’s predictions.

It’s this warping that births the “force” of gravity. In fact, time itself runs differently closer to objects of great mass. This view of the dynamic nature of space and time is vital to the operation of satellites and therefore global positioning systems. The coupled effects of general relativity and special relativity cause a drift of roughly 38 microseconds per day between clocks in orbit around the Earth and those at ground-level. Whilst this might not sound disastrous, GPS systems require errors no greater than a few-nanoseconds to operate correctly and 38 microseconds is 38,000 nanoseconds. Errors in positioning due to these effects would accumulate at roughly 10km per day, making GPS pretty much unusable.

This would have a disastrous effect on the investigation of climate change.

GPS usage in monitoring climate change and the spread of disease

An Australian Antarctic survey using GPS equipment.

Global positioning systems are used in a multitude of ways in the monitoring of climate change. This includes the accurate measurement of water vapour in the atmosphere, an important parameter in climate models, and monitoring the flow of ice sheets and the change in sheet sizes as well as the topology of polar ice-caps. Of course, the practical applications of GPS reach much further than climate change, this includes other applications that might well be essential for not just comfort and convenience, but for our very survival.  GPS and related GIS (geographical information systems, which compile vast amounts of GPS data) can be used to predict the spread of infectious diseases, especially those spread by spores. In addition to this, these same systems can be used to predict potential disaster zones and the effect on surrounding areas.

Scientific breakthroughs shape our world

Our investigation into fundamental physics and particle physics has benefited us as a species in such a variety of ways that I couldn’t possibly even begin to list them. A striking and unexpected example of this would be the use of muons, an elemental particle similar to an electron but with significantly greater mass and significantly shorter life-spans, to discover unknown chambers in pyramids in Gaza.

Our willingness to probe the most fundamental levels of our physical world has given us every advancement we have today, and it’s virtually impossible to predict how future breakthroughs will influence future technology. It’s worrying when scientists begin to suggest projects such as the LHC and cosmology are for curiosity’s sake alone. These ideas if propagated may well reach policy-makers and politicians who already struggle at times to see the value of the discovery of exotic particles such as the Higgs-Boson. Likely, they would very much like to spend money elsewhere. The problem is that there is no guarantee that these funds will remain within science at all! To say that the current political climate in both the UK and the US is not favourable to science funding is a vast understatement. The UK’s impending exit from the European Union is more likely than not to pose an extreme threat to British involvement in projects like CERN. The funds we allocate to European science projects will not be redirected into science as the UK currently withdraws more from the European science pot than it contributes.

Now really is not the time to rock the science funding boat.

Image a hypothetical situation where we knew as much about climate change in 1919 as we do now, and the same discussion I described above occurs between a climate scientist and Einstein and Eddington. Would they too suggest the resources being spent to verify general relativity would be better spent on more pressing concerns? If so imagine the terrible effect that would have on future endeavours in that field.

Hindsight tells us how destructive this argument would have been if applied in the past.