Sunday, September 07, 2008

A question of priorities

LhcThe Large Hadron Collider (LHC) begins operations this week. It has drawn criticism from Sir David King:

"The project has drawn more down-to-Earth criticisms too. Sir David King, the government's former chief science adviser, believes it diverts top scientists away from tackling the more pressing issues of the time, such as climate change and how to decarbonise the economy. In total Britain has contributed more than £500m towards the LHC project."

Okay, let's compare what we're spending and what we're getting for our money with the LHC and just one of the Government's flagship policies aimed at 'decarbonising the economy'.

Our spending on the LHC has been around £500 million over more than ten years, making up around 10% of the programme's total budget. For that money we make a vital contribution to this project:

"Beneath the rural tranquillity of the Geneva countryside, where ramshackle sheds dot the wide-open fields, scientists are getting ready for a trip into the unknown. Here, under 100 metres of rock and sandstone, lies the biggest, most complex machine humans have ever built, and on Wednesday they will finally get to turn it on.

For Cern, the European nuclear research organisation, it will mark the end of a lengthy wait and the beginning of a new era of physics. Over the next 20 years or so, the $9bn (£5bn) machine will direct its formidable power towards some of the most enduring mysteries of the universe.

The machine will search for extra dimensions, which could be curled up into microscopic loops. It might produce "dark matter", the unknown substance that stretches through space like an invisible skeleton. And it will almost certainly discover the elusive Higgs boson, which helps explain the origin of mass, and is better known by its wince-inducing monicker, the God particle.

At least that is the hope. For the machine to work a dizzying number of electronic circuits, computer-controlled valves, airtight seals and superconducting magnets must all work in concert.

The machine is called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and when working at full tilt it will drive two beams of particles in opposite directions around a 17 mile (27km) ring at 99.9999991% of the speed of light. Every second each of the beams will complete 11,245 laps of the machine.

At four points around the ring the beams will be steered into head-on collisions, causing the particles to slam into one another with enough energy to recreate in a microcosm the violent fireball conditions that existed one trillionth of a second after the big bang. Giant detectors, one of which is so enormous it sits in a cavern that could accommodate the nave of Westminster Abbey, will then scrutinise the shower of subatomic debris in the hope of finding something no one has ever seen before."

Absolutely remarkable. Up there with the Apollo programme and Concorde as one of the greatest technological achievements of mankind. Something that stands a good chance of providing vital insights into the nature of the universe and making possible huge technological advances.

By contrast, we spend around £1 billion every year on the Renewables Obligation (RO). A substantial burden on ordinary families paying their electricity bills. In return, we get unreliable windmills that contribute little to providing the generating capacity we need or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as the quantity of power produced is so small and unreliable and back up capacity needs to get turned on and off, reducing its efficiency. The main effect of the RO is to turn ordinary people's money into bumper profits for the renewable energy companies.

Of course, this is just one part of the package of measures designed to reduce emissions. However, as a scheme which offers as expensive and poor value as the RO has been put in place the idea that greenhouse gas reduction policies are suffering because they aren't getting sufficient priority compared to the LHC seems somewhat absurd.

In terms of value for money, I'd take the Large Hadron Collider over the Renewables Obligation any day of the week.

1 comment: said...

Agreed 10^10000%. My wife's a physicist and from I can tell, the LHC is a fantastic piece of work, considerably better than the invention of a semi-biodegradable shopping bag.