Thursday, October 10, 2013
EDITORIAL: Balancing Costs, Benefits Of 'Big Science'
TOKYO (Nikkei)--British physicist Peter Higgs and his Belgian partner Francois Englert were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for their theory that led to the discovery of a subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson.
Japanese scientists and technologies developed by Japanese companies also contributed to the discovery of the Higgs boson, the most basic particle of matter that gives mass to all other matter.
The universe and human beings owe their existence to the Higgs boson, which has been dubbed the "God particle."
The two researchers came up with the theory behind the Higgs boson half a century ago; it was the difficulty in proving the particle's existence that delayed their receipt of the Nobel. The theory was finally proven last year through experiments conducted using the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland.
Some 100 Japanese scientists were involved in the experiments that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, and key components of the accelerator, including sensors and superconducting cables, were developed by Japanese companies. Japanese engineers can take pride in their contribution to this groundbreaking research.
Physicists say there are other secrets still to be uncovered. The discovery of dark matter -- so-called because it is invisible to telescopes -- has prompted them to speculate about the existence of unknown particles.
But while scientists' curiosity is limitless, the tools they can use to further their studies are not. The planned International Linear Collider in Iwate Prefecture, which will explore phenomena similar to the Higgs boson, is estimated to cost 800 billion yen. The study of the tiniest particles in the universe, ironically, perhaps, require huge public works.
Although basic research in physics seems esoteric, there is no denying its potential to benefit ordinary people. When electrons were discovered in the 19th century, no one could have predicted the development of the TVs and mobile phones that make use of them.
Dreams for the future and the search for new discoveries are important in their own right, but it is equally important to weigh the costs and benefits to society when public money is involved. Like Higgs and Englert, we must take care to balance both sides of the equation.
(The Nikkei, Oct. 10 morning edition)