I was asked a while ago what I thought of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Although I’ve been critical of high energy physics in the past (see for example here), I strongly support the LHC and think it is a worthwhile endeavor. My reason is because I think it will be important for future technology. By this I don’t just mean spin offs, like the World Wide Web, which was invented at CERN by Tim Berners Lee. What I mean is that knowledge gained at the high energy scale could be useful for saving the human race one day.
Let me elaborate. My criticism of high energy or particle physics in the past was mostly because of the claim that it was more “fundamental” than other areas of science like condensed matter physics or psychology. Following noble laureate Philip Anderson’s famous article “More is Different” (Science 177:393-396, 1971), what is fundamental to me is a matter of perspective. For example, the fact that I can’t find a parking spot at the mall a week before Christmas is not because of particle physics but because of the pigeonhole principle, (i.e. if you have more things than boxes, then if you try to put the things into the boxes at least one box must contain more than one thing). This is as fundamental to me as any high energy theory. The fact that you can predict an election using polling data from a small sample of the electorate is because of the central limit theorem, (i.e. the sum of a bunch of random events tends to obey a normal distribution), and is also independent of what particles that comprise the electorate. Ironically, the main raison d’etre of the LHC is to look for the Higgs boson, which is thought to give masses to some subatomic particles. The Higgs mechanism is based on the idea of spontaneous symmetry breaking, which came from none other than Phil Anderson who was studying properties of magnets.
So how could high energy physics be pertinent to our existence some day? Well, some day in the very distant future the sun will expand into a red giant and swallow the earth. If humans, or whatever our descendants will be called, are to survive they are going to need to move. This will take space faring technology that could rely on some yet unknown principle of high energy physics that could be discovered by the LHC. And in the very, very distant future the universe will end either in a big crunch or by expanding so much that matter won’t be able to persist. If and when that time comes and life forms still exist, then to survive they’ll have to figure out how to “tunnel” into a new universe or new existence. This will take real science fiction-like stuff that will likely depend on knowledge of high energy physics. So although high energy physics does not hold a monopoly on fundamental concepts, it may still be absolutely necessary for life saving future technology.