The Costs, Uses, Training, and Scientific Contributions of High Energy Physics

In giving talks about particle physics, I am usually asked what are the practical applications of particle physics.  I often think that the audience is aghast that someone would ask a pure theorist who works only for scientific knowledge, what its everyday use would be.  Actually, I live and work in the real world also, and the field has to justify its expenditures to Congress often including just such grounds.  I have included here the outlooks that are a response to that question, as well as links to more detailed applications created in the pursuit of the frontier technologies of high energy physics.

The total program cost of elementary particle physics in the US is about $750 million a year from the Department of Energy (DOE), including the national labs, and $125 million a year from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Theory is funded by DOE at about $60 million a year, with NSF funding of about $14 million a year.

R and D Technology: The detectors used in the medical analysis fields for X-rays, CAT scans, positrons and PET scanning (positron emission tomography) , and magnets for MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) all come from and are continually improved by advances in detectors and magnets for high energy physics.  Cyclotrons at retired high energy labs are used as high energy photon sources for DNA analyses.  Proton beams are used for precise   cancer irradiation, and for creating radioactive isotopes for testing and for radiation therapy.  In the fields’ forefront requirements for handling massive amounts of data, the internet was created as well as the World Wide Web, and now a new international grid for data processing is being built.   Parallel processing was also created for analysis in the field.  The DOE has a site on the Benefits of High Energy Physics.  The ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider has a Technology Challenges Brochure.  ATLAS also has a set of web pages on Medical and Technology Transfer, and on Culture.

Training and Creation of High Tech Businesses:  The costs of the program include the training of graduate students in forefront technologies, and the development of advanced technologies and computer methods. Faculty are only partly supported, and students work at far under their equivalent business compensation, so the field operates very economically.  Technological developments are farmed out to the participating countries.

Just because we cannot foresee what we will discover or what its long term applications might be does not mean that there will not be any. For example, studying nuclear physics led us to a power source that is a million times more energetic per atom than ordinary combustion, yet still only using about one ten thousandth of the total energy of the nucleus.

The cost of high energy physics in the US is only one five hundredth of the military budget yearly.  The distributed cost is about $3 per year per person in the US, not considering the rewards from the advanced technology, the trained Ph. D’s and teachers added to our economy and society, and the reputation of US science and technology in the competitive international business community

Looked at over a hundred years, the quest for comprehending the fundamental constituents of matter and their interactions has led to atomic structure, quantum mechanics, relativistic Quantum Mechanics and field theory, nuclear physics, fusion and how the sun shines, nuclear fission and nuclear reactors

Scientific Knowledge and Culture: Most of the entire picture of strong, nuclear, electromagnetic and weak interactions and quarks and leptons has been mapped out in our lifetime. No other generations have experienced so much.  Also, astronomy, Einstein’s theory with black holes, Cosmology, dark matter and dark energy are still new fields to complete, with at least dark matter possibly arising from elementary particles. Older civilizations are proud of their rich culture and scientific history of discovery and technological innovation, and are willing to fund fundamental research for the knowledge itself, such as Europe, Japan, and China. The latest discovery of the Higgs solves the problem of where the elementary particles get their mass, and opens the door to discovering a new wealth of particles that can make the theory fully consistent. We may also solve the questions of what dark matter is, and of why there is left over matter in the universe, that did not annihilate with an equal amount of antimatter.

In about 110 years, we have gone from learning about the electron, about atomic structure with tiny nuclei, and nuclear structure of the nucleus to now studying 1/1000 the size of the proton, or a reach of 10^8 in magnification. In searching for proton decay and a Grand Unified Theory of electroweak and strong interactions, we are projecting another 10^14 in energy and smallness. In understanding neutrino masses, we are probing maybe 10^8 smaller and higher in energy than now.



About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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