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An eye on ‘big science’ discoveries

As the discovery of gravitational waves shows, science has reached a point where its spectrum of topics is huge and its research paths are extraordinarily numerous and diverse

Gulf News

Everyone heard of the discovery of gravitational waves a week ago. Reactions, from scientists to lay people, have ranged from: “Wow, discovery of the century”, to “what’s the big deal”, and “is that worth all the money and effort?”

Before I address these comments, all of which make sense and have some validity, I need to briefly explain the discovery and put it in its proper scientific context.

Exactly a hundred years ago, Albert Einstein, the greatest mind of the 20th century, published a new theory of gravity, which he described as a curving of space-time: The three dimensions of length, width, and height, plus time. Any object (Earth, the Sun, a satellite, you, me), by virtue of having mass, curves space-time around it, and thus other objects in that region will feel that curvature and will be attracted and move accordingly. I should clarify that this theory does not, contrary to what some people think and say, make Newton’s gravitational theory incorrect; indeed, the latter remains valid wherever gravity is not too strong, and so we continue to teach it to students and apply it in most cases of our world.

Now, Einstein also showed that when gravity is very strong, that is when two objects are very massive and extremely close (such as when two black holes are getting closer and closer and about to merge, as in the latest discovery), ripples occur in the space-time between them and they propagate in all directions and to all regions of the universe. Those ripples are so tiny (one part in a billion metres) that Einstein believed they would never be detected.

So the latest discovery is indeed an extraordinary scientific and technical achievement, particularly when one learns about the sophistication and intricacies of the experiment. Indeed, scientists had been trying to achieve this feat for almost 50 years, and in the latest effort, 1,000 people from 80 institutions in 15 countries participated, and it cost more than 1 billion US dollars.

This then explains the huge excitement it has generated and the ‘discovery of the century’ description; it will certainly receive the Nobel Prize very soon.

The last few years have witnessed similar great triumphs of what we usually call ‘big science’, i.e. research that requires thousands of people and billions of dollars and takes decades to put together and achieve. In July 2012, the Higgs boson, nicknamed the ‘God particle’, was discovered in the huge (27km circumference) CERN accelerator, which cost $13 billion (Dh47.81 billion) and where thousands of scientists and engineers had worked tirelessly for years. In March 2013, the Planck spacecraft of the European Space Agency mapped the universe in the microwave band, allowing us to determine the age of the universe most precisely (13.8 billion years) and getting a glimpse of the early expansion of the cosmos and of the formation of galactic structures. And last July, the world was wowed by the photos sent back by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it reached Pluto after a five billion-kilometre journey that took 9.5 years and cost $700 million. All these were perfect examples of ‘big science’, which seems to have become dominant today.

The more interesting question

So people may well be right to ask: Are these scientific achievements worth such investments (money, time, human resources)? To answer that, we must note that a few billion dollars may seem huge if compared to the costs of campaigns of vaccination or housing for utterly poor people in Africa and Asia, but they are peanuts if compared to other budgets — the defence and military budget of the US alone was $600 billion in 2015.

Rather, the more interesting question is: Are these scientific results real breakthroughs or just small, arcane additions to the huge spectrum of scientific knowledge? Here the answer is not so clear-cut. It is indeed important for science to check its theories and their predictions as fully as possible, and in some cases this can only be done with ‘big science’, without which there will remain questions and doubts about the validity of some of the most fundamental theories of science. But are these worth billions of dollars, which could be spent on other scientific research? That is a question for society (scientists, policymakers, media commentators) to raise and debate. Indeed, how much money should be allocated to science, compared to other societal endeavours and expenses; how much of the science budget should go to ‘applied science’ and how much to ‘basic (or fundamental) science’; and how much of the latter should go to ‘big science’ — all this needs to be discussed openly and rationally.

Science has reached a point where its spectrum of topics is huge and its research paths are extraordinarily numerous and diverse. Furthermore, many of science’s questions can now only be answered with big projects. We need all the wise men and women of society to help steer us through this new jungle.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.

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