I read some really insightful reporting this week. It predates the recent bank collapses, but it’s the best explanation I’ve read of how handing out mortgages to people who couldn’t make payments is crashing the world’s economy. It was an episode of the wonderful radio show This American Life broadcast back in May. Reporters spoke with bankers, mortgage brokers, economists, and home buyers about a chain of events that began with unprecedented money flowing to developing countries and is now bringing world stock markets to their knees. The episode costs a bit to download, but you’ll see a small link marked “Download a transcript” that’s free. Available here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1242.
Every high-profile science project draws detractors: the Hubble telescope, the Human Genome Project, the Space Shuttle program, space travel itself, etc. Last week though, I heard some comments about the Large Hadron Collider that really stumped me. The arguments followed one two lines:
1) We have serious problems with hunger, thirst, disease, and poverty in the world. Those $5 billion could better be spent solving those problems. This is a well-worn sentiment, based on some flawed assumptions, but at least arguable. A few billion dollars’ worth of food aid would indeed make an immediate impact on life in developing countries. Problem is, that’s true of absolutely everything we spend money on, every time we spend it. I feel a duty to contribute and help lift people out of poverty; I do not feel compelled to devote every penny and every minute to doing so.
2) Why are we wasting money satisfying the whims and curiosities of a few elite scientists? This is the one that leaves me flummoxed. The Large Hadron Collider is designed to crash narrow beams of particles into each other at incredibly high speeds. As a guy, I find this unspeakably cool. It’s frickin’ particle beams that carries the energy of an aircraft carrier steaming at full speed, only packed into the space the size of your pinky finger. And then you shoot ’em into each other! Awesome! I can’t think of a way I’d rather have my tax money spent. (Strictly speaking, this was mostly European tax money, not mine.) But more than that, the point of the experiment is to create subatomic particles not seen since the Big Bang. Who knows what that could tell us about the birth of the universe? I’ll say that again: the birth of the UNIVERSE. This universe, where everything we know and love comes from: Earth, puppies, the Beatles, Frances of Assisi, Virginia Woolf. Seems to me that we should try to learn all we can about it.