[Outlook]Big science requires big money

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[Outlook]Big science requires big money

In the past month, two big events took place in the science field. One was the turning on of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator complex built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. It started operating on Sept. 10.

The other event was the successful spacewalk from China’s Shenzhou 7, the first for the country.

The two landmark events are good examples of “big science.”

The missions were successfully completed because the countries poured huge amounts of money and manpower into specific science and technology projects.

CERN, a research institute for elementary particle physics run by 20 European countries, spent more than 10 trillion won ($8.1 billion) over 15 years to build the LHC, a gigantic instrument that collides two beams of protons head-on.

The researchers will recreate the conditions right after the Big Bang, which is expected to reveal the ultimate building blocks of substances and the secrets of the creation of the universe.

The total budget for the Shenzhou 7 is hard to estimate because of the secretive nature of communist China, but certainly a huge amount of money was spent, considering that a single spacesuit costs nearly 5 billion won.

Why, then, do many countries invest such huge budgets in science and technology projects which seemingly have nothing to do with everyday life?

It will be no big problem if we don’t find out the secrets of the creation of the universe.

But many European countries have invested in the LHC project, spending much more than the amount the Korean government has put into assisting research in all Korean universities for the past 15 years.

The Chinese government might have become more popular if it gave the countless Chinese people living in poverty the money spent on the spacewalk of Zhai Zhigang, the team captain of Shenzhou 7, which was broadcast live across the country.

But humans need more than just the economic means to go about their daily lives. All of us have a fundamental curiosity about the origin of the universe.

We feel proud when our national football team wins an international match. We will also feel proud if our taxes are used to find out the origin of life and the universe.

If our country had the advanced technology and national power to launch a spaceship, we would be proud as well.

Big science allows one to feel proud of oneself for making a contribution to the civilization shared by all of humankind. It also elevates a country’s status, which raises the brand value of the nation’s products, just as France’s rich culture increases the price of French perfume.

Cutting-edge scientific research often produces epoch-making new technologies, adding a great deal of value to a society.

CERN developed the World Wide Web so its scientists could better communicate and publicize the technology free of charge, making a decisive contribution to the Internet era of today.

It is also a well-known fact that space science developed the Global Positioning System.

Technology derived from space science is also used in other areas. For instance, the material for spacesuits, which are designed to withstand the extreme conditions in space, is used for firefighters’ suits.

Big science is key when it comes to elevating a country’s status and developing new technologies.

As science and technology develop, large-scale facilities and equipment, such as a light accelerator, are needed.

The problem is that the research and facilities necessary for big science require huge investments.

Advanced countries have always discussed how much of the limited resources allotted for all scientific research should be invested in big science.

In Korea, the process of directing investment toward some gigantic scientific facilities hasn’t been transparent, making things more complicated.

In order to increase investments in scientific facilities, which is the global trend, the decision-making processw should be transparent and persuasive not only to scientists, but also to nonscientists.

The scientists involved in the LHC experiments are required to explain the significance and purposes of their experiments to the general public. This request is valid as long as scientists are using taxpayer money.


*The writer is a professor of physics and the dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung
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