Most of you are probably aware that on July 4th the CMS and ATLAS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN announced the discovery of a new particle. As a member of the ATLAS experiment, I could not be more excited. This new particle, which has a mass about 130 times greater than the proton mass, would appear to be the long sought after Higgs boson. The actual confirmation that it is a Higgs will still need to await some final experimental checks, but it certainly has all the characteristics of a Higgs particle so far, and the news of the discovery made headlines around the world (let me shamelessly choose share my appearance with Brian Greene on Charlie Rose).
While it ranks as probably the most important discovery in my (long) career in particle physics, this seems an appropriate moment to reflect on the importance of this discovery after the initial euphoria has worn off. It is a question my non-physics friends and my congressman asked me; namely, "Awesome, this is a great discovery, but... so what?"
It is a serious question that deserves a serious answer, and I would like to give you my view on the answer. The answer comes in three parts.
First and foremost is the scientific importance of this discovery. I will recap the importance of this manifestation of the Higgs field, but only briefly, since you have probably read a lot of press on that topic -- the Higgs field provides the answer to the question of how the elementary particles acquire their mass, and the fact that many of them acquire a non-zero mass is crucially important to us because it allows the formation of atoms, which in turn beget molecules, which in turn beget us!
So, yes, this aspect is crucially important to my physics friends and provides the last piece of the puzzle to the "Standard Model" of particle physics -- one of the most successful theories to explain how elementary particles interact with the fundamental forces. It is one key to the eternal quest to understand where the universe comes from, how it evolved and how we got here. It is hard to think of a more important question to address.
The second part addresses the question: "But is that quest worth a few billion dollars in the difficult financial times?" I believe the answer is yes. If you ask me if the discovery of this new particle will make your life better tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or even five or 10 years down the road, the answer, I suspect, is no. But what about 20 or 50 or 100 years down the road? Then I am confident, with history as my guide, that the answer is yes.
History has taught us that the fundamental research of today is the technology of tomorrow. So while I have no clue how our particular research on an esoteric topic like the search for the Higgs might lead to future technologies, the history of science is full of those examples: early experiments on electricity may have seemed cool at the time, but who could have predicted that what we now take for granted and can't live without came out of a quest to understand nature?
In the early 1900s, I doubt that anyone could have foreseen how quantum mechanics would become the bedrock of our current technology (such as cell phones and computers) or how important Einstein's theory of general relativity would be. Could anyone have imagined that the effects predicted by general relativity are crucial to the accurate functioning of the ubiquitous GPS systems that we have in our cell phones? There are many other examples, but the point is that if we stop supporting basic research, we will not feel an immediate impact, but our children's children will pay the price for that shortsightedness.
My last point is that the questions we ask are big questions. What is the universe? What are we made of? What is our future fate? Do we live in more than three-space dimensions? These and many other questions like them can inspire the next generation. When I think of the number of young people that showed up at 3 am to listen to the live announcement from CERN on July 4, I needed no greater proof that these questions do inspire our youth. Of course, I understand they won't all become particle physicists; however, I do believe that many will be inspired to pursue careers in science and technology because it is "cool." Much like the space program of the 1960s inspired a generation of scientists, the physics of the LHC can inspire the 2010 generation.
Have I convinced you? I hope so.