Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire (CERN), the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, on Wednesday switched on the most expensive machine ever, with the hope of simulating conditions moments after the Big Bang gave birth to our world. Though doubts hover over the ways in which it will advance science, the project reflects dramatic political progress. We have come a long way in the 50 years since the USSR sent Sputnik into space.
Humanity’s interest in the universe is far older than even early Mesopotamian civilization. But it was only in the 20th century that satellite launches and moon landing gave an entirely new meaning to space exploration. Much of that was a fallout of the Cold War. For instance, Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was set up in 1958 to deal with “Sputnik crises” after the Soviets managed to beat the US by launching the first satellite in October 1957. Science was run by Cold War bureaucracies.
The spirit behind CERN is quite the opposite, with 500 participating universities from 80 countries. The US, Russia, Turkey and Israel are among the collaborating nations; a few decades ago, one would have laughed at the absurdity of the thought. Of course, it is good to see scientists unite in this fashion.
But the experiment cost $9 billion, more than the gross domestic product of Cambodia, with 14 million people. The uncomfortable question remains whether humanity can afford to spend a fortune to know “what happened few seconds after the Big Bang” when there are more pressing needs. But imagine having the two Cold War camps building a Hadron Collider each. The costs would have added up to far greater than $18 billion. The camps with no access to each other’s knowledge would suffer heavily from bottlenecks.
Joseph Stalin, Soviet ruler in the early Cold War years, had purged some physicists for developing theories inconsistent with “dialectical materialism”. This was rather extreme, but in the US, too, scientists were under pressure from politicians craving to flaunt. Nothing could be better for the progress of knowledge than non-political collaboration; CERN is a fantastic reflection of exactly that.
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