A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a giant star is going through the final stages of its life. It has been shining for 10 billion years, but now, it is running out of gas, and is slowly dying. The core of the star collapses under its own gravity. The force of the collapse is so huge that it blew off the outer layers of the star in an enormous explosion known as the Kepler Supernova.
This magnificent event happened 20,000 light years from Earth, and yet the explosion was so big, so bright that it is visible from Earth, during the day, and lasted for three weeks.
That was back in year 1604. What a wonderful time to be alive.
Dear madam toastmaster, ladies and gentlemen. Have you ever looked into a night sky and wonder what is out there? Well I have. Not just the night sky, I sometimes look into my bowl of potato soup and wonder what do the atoms of a potato look like and if they are any different from the atoms that make up my dog, Zeta. End up, they are not as different as you think. When a star dies, its elements are returned to the universe, and these elements form the next generation of stars and planets, and by extension, you and me, the potato in my soup and my dog. We are all made of star dust.
Now how do we know this? How did we evolve from beings that think thunder and lightnings are weapons of the Gods to this creature that is capable of observing the death of a star in a far away galaxy and deduce that its elements are essentially the same elements that make up a potato and that four-legged creature that chases its own tail and drinks from your toilet?
One word. Science.
There are two types of science. There is science that make things like your iPhones or this nifty light thingy on this lectern, and then there is the second type of science that does nothing “useful” besides asking annoying questions like, “where does the universe come from?”. We have a name for this second type of science, it is called fundamental research.
Before I came to Sydney I worked at CERN, the European organisation for nuclear research in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a fundamental research centre and hires around 10,000 scientists from around the world, all working on solving one question: where does the universe come from?
And the amazing thing is, we don’t just sit around all day and ponder like ancient Greek philosophers, we actually built machines to help us find answers. And not just any machine, the machine that we have built is called the Large Hadron Collider, and cost 3 billion euros.
What this machine tries to do, is to create the initial condition of the big bang and study its remnants. We all know that the universe started from the big bang, but there are many things that we still don’t know. Things such as, where does mass come from? Or what is the composition of the universe? All the elements in the universe, all the hundreds of billions of stars and galaxies, you, and me, these tables and chairs, my potato soup, my dog Zeta, and everything else that we can observe in the universe, all of them, make up only 5% of the universe. The rest? We have no idea what they are. (Scientists call them Dark Matter and Dark Energy. And they make up 95% of the universe.) The large hadron collider might help us find out what they actually are.
How does the machine do this? How does it create a big bang? What it does is to fire two bunch of protons to almost the speed of light and collide them together. The huge amount of energy resulting from these collisions, given by the famous Einstein equation E=MC2 manifest themselves as a stream of particles which scientists then capture and study. The technology involved in achieving this is no mean feat: protons are super, super tiny. If I draw a dot on a piece of paper, billions of protons can fit into it. The particles are so small that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 10 kilometres apart with such precision that they meet halfway! I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty freaking cool.
But here comes the question that you might be wondering: ok, so this all sounds very advanced and exciting, but what is the use of doing all this? So what if we find out where the universe comes from? How does it help us? Wouldn’t the 3 billion euros be better spent say, feeding hungry kids in Africa?
All fair questions. But we are forgetting something when we ask those questions: fundamental research drives innovation. History has taught us that big leaps in human innovation are often the result of pure curiosity. Michael Faraday’s experiments on electricity, for example, were prompted by curiosity but eventually brought us electric light. No amount of research on candles could have done that. Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity led to the invention of the GPS, a billion dollar industry today.
Households in the United States spend more than $5.1 billion a year on ice cream. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it, when compared to the 3 billion dollar bill of the large hadron collider. What’s more, the technologies that are used to build the LHC are useful in other fields too. Cancer radiation therapy, solar technologies, intelligent microchips, etc, they are all side products of fundamental research.
But the thing is, none of these applications were planned. And therein lies the beauty of science. People don’t do science for the possible spin-off technology, or fame, or money. The reason people do science is often for the untainted joy of discovering how the universe works. It is a manifestation of the quintessential part of being human: curiosity and wonder. We are all scientists at heart. The crazy formulas and code languages are just the tools of the trade. The truth is, the first time you stare into a starry sky and wonder what is out there, you are already a scientist. And if in the pursuit of scientific truth we do produce something ‘useful’, and I believe we inevitably will, isn’t that a happy coincidence?