Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am

This week: Science heating up

On Wednesday at about 8.30am Greenwich time, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) atom smasher on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland, turned on the largest and most expensive scientific experiment in the history of humankind. It is also the most complex machine devised by man.

Also called a particle accelerator, the LHC will be sending streams of hadrons (commonly known as protons) at 99.9999991 per cent of the speed of light and have them collide head-on. The LHC is the largest international collaborative effort after the United Nations and cost the nations and scientific institutions involved more than HK$62 billion to build. It is also the world's largest fridge. To achieve the superconductivity necessary for the experiment, the 27km-long accelerator is pre-cooled with 10,080 tonnes of liquid nitrogen to minus-193.2 degrees Celsius and then it is further cooled to an astonishing minus-271.3 with 59 tonnes of liquid helium.

To prevent the stream of hadrons from erroneously colliding with errant air molecules, the scientists created the emptiest space in our solar system. They created a super-vacuum with a resultant pressure in the accelerator that is one-tenth that on the moon. When the particles collide, the temperature generated will be an unimaginable 100,000 times that of the Sun, albeit on a much smaller scale. There are four main sensors in the system that will generate 15 million gigabytes of data for more than 80,000 computers worldwide to analyse. The immensity of this experiment is staggering and makes me wish I was part of it.

Some of my close friends find the number of interests that I have surprising. An initial conversation with a new acquaintance would usually start on the topic of my vocation as a veterinarian. It's a great ice-breaker, I admit, but once they get to know me, I am full of odd surprises. I have always had a long-time interest in other fields of study, such as philosophy, history, mythology, archaeology, anthropology, marine biology, aviation, mathematics and especially physics.

But my all-time favourite has to be physics. It is not just the fundamental way that physics describes the world and the universe that is so integral to everyday life; physics is also an integral part of the history of modern civilisation. The discoveries in physics have made possible the world that we live in now. Without it we would be less than primitive.

Physics is also a very exciting frontier; the amount that we know is little compared with what is to be discovered. It is this sense of mystery and exploration that makes the field so exciting to follow, and what makes this experiment so special.

Among other things the LHC scientists hope to create is a soup of energy and particles called a quark-gluon plasma, a substance theorised to exist only a few moments after the Big Bang birth of the universe. And by observing this plasma as it cools from temperatures 100,000 times as hot as the Sun, we hope to garner an idea of how the universe formed after the Big Bang. This and other hoped-for discoveries will elucidate how the current laws of physics can be unified into a grand unified theory of everything.

We practical Hongkongers will definitely be thinking: What good will this do us? Keep in mind that for generations thinkers have studied science for the sake of science rather than for any practical purpose. Many of the discoveries in pure science have trickled down to inventions that have changed the world we live in. So patience will be a virtue.

There is talk that this experiment is costing countries and companies around the world unreasonable amounts of money that could be spent on other fields of study, especially ecology and environmentalism. It is said, and I agree wholeheartedly, that the world's immediate problem is climate change due to pollution and the multitude of problems that its heating up will cause.

I agree also that many more of the world's resources should be allocated to help solve our reliance on fossil fuels or find methods that can capture and remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But I don't agree that it should be at the expense of other sciences. Less than 1 per cent of the world's gross domestic product is devoted to research. I think it is time that we gave up some amenities and allocated more to save our planet from ourselves.

Stephen Hawking has been quoted as saying: 'Both the LHC and the space programme are vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one-tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race cannot afford this, then it doesn't deserve the epithet 'human'.'