How Politics Killed America's Super Collider | Brian Cox and Joe Rogan


4 years ago



Brian Cox

2 appearances

Professor Brian Cox is an English physicist and Professor of Particle Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester in the UK.


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Did you become involved with CERN? So that would be, I started doing particle physics in 1995. And when did the Large Hadron Collider go live? That was, I remember, it was 2007, I think it was, 2008. It was so long ago, that I can't remember, it was about 10 years ago. But it started up and then we had a problem with it and then it took a while to fix. So it hasn't been taking data that long. But it's a tremendously successful thing now and it's operating beyond its design capabilities. It's quite incredible. It's so stunning as a physical thing that this, I mean, how large is it? It's 27 kilometers, so what's that, about 16 miles. 16 miles and it's a circular sort of a building. Yeah. Well, it's a big tube. I mean, you think basically it's mainly under France and partly under Switzerland. And it accelerates protons around in a circle, both ways. One beam goes one way, one goes the other way. And they go around 11,000 times a second. So that's very close to the speed of light. 99.9999999% the speed of light. Wow. And then we cross the beams and collide the particles. And in those collisions, you're recreating the conditions that were present less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. So we know that physics. So going back, you said about the carbon and the oxygen, we can trace that story back way beyond the time when there were protons and neutrons to when there were quarks and gluons around and go all the way back and the Higgs boson doing its thing back then. And so we can see all that physics in the lab. So that's why we have a lot of confidence in that story. It's so fascinating that they were able to talk someone into funding that, that they got a bunch of people together and that you were able to explain to politicians and regular people what you're trying to do. It's a great example of how you get something done. So it was the 50s when CERN was established. I think it was 53 or 54. I can't quite remember. It's something like that. And it was built out from the Second World War. So you have Europe at the end of the war. And it was realized that the only way forward for Europe was collaboration, to rebuild the scientific base and for peace, for peaceful purposes. And so CERN was set up as an international collaboration in Europe initially with that political ideal that it would explore nature just freely and for peace, for peaceful means and peaceful reasons. And so that was the politics was right. So it was set up by international treaty so that the member states are bound together by a treaty and they pay a small amount, relatively small amount each into CERN every year, which is a percentage of their GDP. And that's the money they use to build the experiments and build the accelerators. So it's very hard to get out of it. And you wouldn't really want to because it's a small amount of money per country. And CERN doesn't get extra money to build things. It just takes its money and basically saves up and plans itself. But because it's got a regular stream of money, it can do it. So it can say, we're going to build this machine and it will take eight years because that's how much money we've got and we'll build it in eight years. And we know how much money we've got so we can do it. And it's a lesson. I mean, the reason that the US collide and the SSC failed is because it's the problem you have in the US with the funding system, as you've seen in the last few weeks. Is that it's very arbitrary and it's open to political maneuvering and things can be shut down and CERN is not like that. CERN has got a guaranteed stream of funding, small from each country. And so you can do these projects. And the one in the US that was during the Clinton administration, is that what it was? Yeah, it was close. Was it Clinton? It was closed down by Congress on a very slim vote. And it was in Texas. So it was one of those things where you've got states vying for money and it was half built. And everyone was there. And the thing, it was bigger than the LHC and it was closed down. So you waste a lot of money. Is that a huge disappointment for the scientific community? Like were people very hopeful that this was going to go live? Yeah, it was being built. So it dug half the tunnel. What would it be able to do that the LHC couldn't do? It was a higher energy accelerator than the LHC. So it would have discovered the Higgs particle first. Wow. Had it been running. But the half built part, is it useless now? Or can they sort of recharge it up again? No, I think they filled it in. Filled it in? I think so. I mean, it was just half a tunnel. You know? So that's the thing. You can do these wonderful things for not a lot of money if you just do it over many years and have stable funding and just commit to doing it. The filling it in part is like... And you look at CERN as well. You know, people ask me now, I think the UK pays about... It's about $100 million a year. That's what the UK pays in. And it's the same for Germany, same for France and so on. And so people say, what do we get for that? I mean, first of all, it's not... The whole budget of CERN is about the same as a budget of a medium-sized university. So it's not a lot. It's about a billion dollars a year or something, which is what a university has. So it's not a lot in the scheme of things. What's it done, though? Well, we invented the World Wide Web, as we've just said. A lot of the medical imaging technology that we use comes from CERN. It's pioneered the use of these very high field magnets, which is what it needed. So it's engineering at the edge. And engineering at the edge generates spin-offs and expertise to get you using other fields. So there's cancer treatments, so-called hadron beam therapy. So if you've got a brain tumor now, it's quite likely that you'll have one of these targeted particle beam therapies, which is like very highly targeted sort of chemotherapy. It's not chemotherapy. It's just radiation that you can target in a beam into your head and attack the tumor. And those are particle accelerators. So most particle accelerators today are in hospitals and in medicine. But they came from doing particle physics. So the spin-offs of these big experiments at the edge of our capability are always immense, which is why they're worth funding at these very low levels. But it's not just the knowledge. It's the engineering expertise. That there is a practical application for every day life. There always is. It's just finding out how to do hard things is usually useful.