As a budding experimental physicist, a question I am often posed is, “Why would one spend so much money studying subatomic realms when one could spend the money …” The suggestions for where the money could or should be directed are endless; starving populations, war-stricken nations, charity, or even Wall Street. Now, before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that while I am defending the spending of billions on esoteric physics research, I am not condoning the diversion of money from the more humanitarian causes across the planet. 

There are two institutes that come to mind when considering this matter: CERN (Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire) and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). CERN is at the forefront of high energy physics research, and NASA is the American space program. At the heart of CERN is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the 17-mile-long supercollider responsible for the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson (a fundamental particle crucial to our understanding of the universe) in 2012. Accounting for the building and operating costs of the LHC over the years, Forbes estimated the cost of the discovery of the Higgs to be 13.25 billion US dollars. Their annual budget (2012) was approximately 1.2 billion USD, fueling a multitude of projects in addition to the LHC. Since NASA’s conception in 1958, it has spent a staggering 900 billion USD (accounting for inflation), with an annual budget (2015) of 17.5 billion USD. A monumental scientific endeavor and achievement in itself, putting man on the moon, cost upwards of 100 billion USD, albeit with the positive political externalities. 

So why do we spend so much researching either realms that are so minuscule we could never even imagine or perceive them , or realms so vast we could never hope to traverse them? There is the age old answer that it is all in the quest of knowledge to enrich the human race and better comprehend our apparent existence. And while it is true that this thirst for knowledge (combined with an innate scientific curiosity) is enough to drive most researchers, this response often does not cut it for one not bitten by the curiosity bug. 

Consequently, the matter of the limitless potential of research and discovery is broached. Discovery or invention is often the result of research targeted toward solving a specific problem or meeting a particular demand. Some of the best examples of this include the discoveries made in the field of pharmaceuticals, in response to the necessity for cure or prevention of illnesses. However, a surprising number of modern applications stem from discoveries that were the result of research with no apparent practical purposes at the time. To clarify, I am not referring to chance discoveries that prompted further research, such as the discovery of penicillin or the ability to use microwaves to heat food. I am referring to the research that was done merely to better understand certain phenomena and that later shed light on uses not even previously imagined or envisioned. One of the best examples of this is electricity, which was merely an intellectual curiosity in the early 17th century, investigated by the likes of Benjamin Franklin. It was only in the early 19th century that its applicative potential was realized and in the late 19th century that began to manifest itself in the inventions that we cannot imagine life without today, a life that physicist William Gilbert probably never even envisaged in 1600 when trying to suss out why amber displayed attractive properties. It is this past of scientific investigation of the esoteric leading to mankind’s development and betterment that drives us to study things like the Higgs Boson or the surface of Mars, in the hope that they provide the pieces to the puzzle that is the next revolutionary development of our species. 

In spite of this, the realist in me knows that there are still people who fail to see the justification behind the dedication of resources of this magnitude towards such branches of research. Which is why it’s a good thing that I haven’t even touched upon one of the greatest, and more immediate benefits of CERN and NASA’s research endeavors — collateral discovery. Discovering the Higgs or putting man on the Moon were no simple accomplishments, feats that could have only been achieved with the support of technology. The only problem was that a lot of the necessary technology did not even exist at the time. Naturally, the only rational way for researchers to face such a hurdle is to invent anything they need that didn’t already exist. Multitudes of such inventions have directly translated into modern day essentials, or have at the very least inspired spin-off applications. 

The miniaturization of computer technology was inspired and bolstered by the space race. Faced with the constraint of weight when sending objects into space, NASA took contemporary computers tipping the scales at several tons and occupying entire rooms and shrunk their technology into something that could be squeezed into the Apollo capsules, effectively creating the predecessor of the microprocessors that power all of our electronics. On their way to the moon and beyond, NASA has pioneered a lot more than computing, with the invention of (or significant improvement on) 1,800 products including flame and heat retardant materials, water filters, memory foam, long distance communication, baby formula and even artificial limbs. Almost every form of medical imaging has been developed or refined by NASA, CERN and other places alike in their endeavor to conduct their research. 

Tim Berners-Lee, while working at CERN in 1980, proposed and spearheaded a project which over the next decade, became the World Wide Web. His initial inspiration an “act of desperation” to ease and enhance communication with researchers within CERN. Little did he know that his creation would be adopted the world over and nourished to the magnitude at which it exists today. CERN’s contributions don’t end there. They are currently working on refining a miniaturized particle accelerator which will treat cancer in a manner significantly less detrimental than chemotherapy. Tired of all the buttons and knobs in their control rooms, CERN created the capacitive touch screen, later adopted into numerous electronics like those smartphones we all know and love. In doing all of the research that they do, CERN generates about 15 petabytes (15 million gigabytes) of data annually, which is stored and processed by the LHC Computing Grid (LCG). The LCG provides researchers with the computing power of around 20,000 computers, which is exploited globally for a multitude of purposes, including drug discovery formulation for fatal diseases. The list of CERN’s contributions goes on and on. 

Ergo, in a very direct way, the money directed toward seemingly bottomless pits has yielded outcomes that have significantly improved healthcare and the overall quality of life while furthering the human race today and for years to come.