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1 The Rising Cost of Scientific Exploration on Fri Sep 10, 2010 9:32 pm

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CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) runs a 27 km circular tunnel under the French-Swiss borders. </TD></TR></TABLE>

When more than 50 years of studying space have only allowed us to account for less than 5 percent of the universe, then even bigger scientific projects are needed to make sense of this unknown vast.

Several international science collaboration projects have sprung up around the world. These range from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) which studies particle physics, to the ITER project working on producing nuclear fusion on Earth.

But these projects cost tens of billions of dollars to build and run, making many people skeptical about whether their huge costs can be justified.

That is the price for "the grandest question that humans have ever asked, the biggest challenge that humans have taken – to explore the unknown," explained Lawrence Krauss, professor of Astronomy, and former Chair of the Physics Department at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU).

"We are getting to the point that these questions are so ambitious that they are beyond the resources of any single country." However, such costs, according to Krauss, are essential for the progress of physics and science.

Just Like the World Wide Web
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Left to right: Lawrence Krauss, former Chair of the Physics Department at CWRU; John Mather, senior project scientist at JWST; Barry Barish, director of the International Linear Collider; Robert Aymar, director general of CERN.</TD></TR></TABLE>

"In reality, these projects are so large that it takes so long to build them and run them until finally, the price you pay per year, per capita is not much larger than other projects," said Robert Aymar, director general of CERN.

CERN is the world's largest particle physics laboratory. It is located on the border between France and Switzerland and has been running for more than 50 years. It is an international collaboration with more than 20 countries taking part in it.

CERN is credited with the development of the World Wide Web. "We try to make sure that every discovery can be transferred to society for its development," explained Aymar. "The World Wide Web was distributed freely to all Mankind. If we at CERN take one penny every time an e-mail is sent we'd be much much richer and would pay for all our crazy projects!"

However, Krauss points out that the money that goes into these projects is used for something bigger. "As humans we all have fundamental questions. Where are we going? Are we alone? These are questions that humanity has asked for centuries or even millennia."

"The interesting thing is that, in many cases, we are at the threshold of answering them."

"Science at this level may not seem like it is going to produce a better toaster," he laughed. "Although there are, in fact, ancillary technological benefits of every project you ever heard of, we don't fund science for the ancillary benefits."

"The work we do has benefits in different branches such as medical, etc. All this development is transferred to all governments."

CERN is also a hub for education. More than 10,000 scientists and students from 500 universities around the world work on experiments at CERN. That amounts to nearly half of the particle physics community. This has made it one of the most important multinational educational hubs in the world.

"There are issues besides discovery which are very important to everyone to make use of. That is why the amount of money spent at CERN, which is not a large amount, is well spent because the benefits will spread all over the world."

Unlimited Energy?
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ITER promises to offer the first commercially viable fusion source of energy on Earth.</TD></TR></TABLE>

The ITER project, while still a few years away, could also provide an answer to one of humanity's direst problems – energy generation. ITER is the most ambitious project to generate fusion nuclear energy – the type of energy created in the sun. This could mean essentially limitless fuel for everyone in the world.

More importantly, it is a fuel that, unlike fossil fuels, does not produce greenhouse gases. Throw in the fact that fusion reactors do not produce dangerous radioactive wastes like the fission reactors (the nuclear reactors we have today), and the prospect of fusion energy becomes very attractive.

The problem with fusion fuels up till now has been the fact that they take up more energy than they produce. ITER promises to offer the first commercially viable fusion source of energy on Earth.

Norbert Holtkamp, ITER Principal Deputy Director General, explained that it is a truly global project. The seven parties that are involved in ITER, namely Europe, Japan, China, India, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the US, account for more than half of the population of the world.

The construction of ITER has a budget well over US$7 billion, but the potential technology it can offer Mankind would possibly surpass that cost several times.

"Cheaper Than a Month in Iraq!"
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The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to launch in 2013. (NASA)</TD></TR></TABLE>

Another international project that is sometimes criticized is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope.

JWST is the first in a generation of deployable telescopes. It will not be earth-bound like the Hubble Space Telescope. Rather, it will be launched 1.5 million km (1 million miles) into space where a large mirror and a giant sunshade will open up to form a big telescope. It is expected to be launched in 2013.

"It started with a report in 1995," said James Manther, senior project scientist at JWST. "But this is only the start. I think we will be seeing many more deployable telescopes in the near future."

"It sounds very ambitious and you'd guess it is very expensive, but this is actually cheaper than the Hubble Space Telescope." Manther explained that this is a result of greatly improved technology over the years.

Krauss acknowledged that these projects are very expensive, but said that this is the only way it can be done. "A lot of people think that scientists get together and think 'how can we make these projects more expensive,' but it is exactly the opposite of that."

According to him, scientists actually think "how can we do this in the cheapest way possible?"

"If you want to explore space, if you want to understand science, this is what you must do!" exclaimed Klaus. "At the end of the day you will find that the cost of these projects costs less than a month in Iraq!"

Aymar, from CERN, counters the argument of people who say that the money being spent is too risky. "Every experiment is a risk, but they are necessary. That is the excitement of physics, you discover things!"

"We have all those ideas that we have been building up over 25 years of waiting – fascinating ideas such as extra dimensions, and most of them are wrong but that's the way science works," said Krauss.

"Over and over again it has been validated that every time we open a new window into the universe we will be surprised," he said. "We may discover that these projects don't give any results but that would only mean that our ideas are wrong and that is exciting."

"The big challenge is if humanity will continue to evolve more complex systems and keep opening those windows."

These issues were raised during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which is currently taking place in Boston, US.</TD></TR>
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Mohammed Yahia is an editor in the Health & Science section at IslamOnline.net. He has a degree in pharmacology from Cairo University, Egypt. You can contact him by sending an e-mail to [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]</TD></TR></TABLE></TD></TR></TABLE></TD></TR></TABLE>[/td][/tr][/table]]

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