07/17/2012 11:57 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2012

Discovery And The Need For Research Universities

I may be the furthest thing from a nuclear physicist, but I was excited to learn that, based on data from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the Higgs boson particle appears to have been discovered after 45 years of searching. I confess part of my excitement was that Wayne State University physicists -- along with physicists around the world -- played a role in the discovery.

The Wayne State team, led by Paul Karchin and Robert Harr of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, contributed to the project at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, in Geneva, and on our campus. This team participated in the 24/7 operation of the experiment as well as analysis of the data collected, and became experts with different parts of the experimental apparatus.

Many people have asked: What is the importance of this discovery? The answers have been fascinating. The Higgs boson has been called "the match that lit the Big Bang," and the particle that explains how the universe attains its mass. Lofty claims, but another answer may be: we have not yet begun to comprehend the importance of this discovery, or the benefits we will reap from it.

This is important to understand, because others will ask: is it worth all the time and resources to find it? In these days of increasing demand for accountability, this is a common challenge, but we should not be cowed by it. We should be inspired.

People had similar questions when the space program was launched. Just as hundreds of years ago many challenged the wisdom of sending ships beyond the known boundaries of the oceans. And they certainly have similar questions today for research universities.

But human beings have always been driven by a need to know -- often for the sake of knowledge alone. That instinct has provided us benefits beyond counting.

When John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon, the objective was to win the "space race." We did. But nobody could have predicted the subsequent technological advancements that found their way into everyday products and helped improve the lives of people all over the world.

LEDs, advances in computer and video technology, improved artificial limbs, better tires, memory foam, freeze-drying, better food safety, powdered lubricants and improved firefighting equipment, among many other things, all can trace their roots back to the space program.

We are driven by a need to know, and we benefit in ways we cannot always anticipate. As Stephen Hawking observed, "The great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn't expect."

This is why we need research universities. We are in the business of discovery. Yes, our primary mission is to help students discover and attain their true potential. But we also create new knowledge, new products, and technologies that change the way we live.

We don't always know where our searches will lead us. Some years ago, A. Paul Schaap, then a professor in our Department of Chemistry, led a research team that developed an unusual luminescent compound. It was stable, safe, and it glowed brightly. At the time, no one -- not even the inventor -- knew just how important a discovery this would turn out to be. It led to a company called Lumigen, whose luminescent products are used in medical diagnoses around the world.

America has always had a pioneering spirit, and we have always admired pioneers. They may not wear buckskin anymore, or sail in wooden ships, or climb into space capsules. They just may be the quiet person in the lab of a research university, studying particles too small to be seen.