NATIONAL CHENG KUNG UNIVERSITY, TAINAN, TAIWAN
BANYAN
Volume 12 Issue 8 - February 12, 2010
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Commentary
DENNIS OVERBYE
The Joy of Physics Isn't in the Results, but in the Search Itself
 
Where Next? A Charter for Climate Refugees
Chris Abbott
Toward sustainable security
Article Digest
Teh-Lu Liao
Optimal PID Control Design for Synchronization of Delayed Discrete Chaotic Systems
Weichen Su
Hatred to women? The Yin Hsueh-yen case in Taipei People
Jiu-Yao Wang
The Effect of Water-soluble Chitosan on Macrophage Activation and the attenuation of Mite Allergen-induced Airway Inflammation
Ching-Ting Lee
Performance improvement of (NH4)2Sx-treated III–V compounds multi-junction solar cell using surface treatment
News Release
Helen Chang
International Robotics and Automation Expert Professor Tzyh-Jong Tarn (談自忠) Becomes Visiting Chair and Distinguished Professor at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU)
Helen Chang
2010 Annual Meeting of the Physical Society of Republic of China (ROC) held at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU)
Banyan Forum
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Editorial Group
The Joy of Physics Isn't in the Results, but in the Search Itself
This article has been published in the Science Section of the New York Times
on December 29, 2009.
We want to thank Mr. Dennis Overbye for giving NCKU the permission
to publish and translate into Chinese of this article in the Banyan.
I was asked recently what the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator outside Geneva, is good for. After $10 billion and 15 years, the machine is ready to begin operations early next year, banging together protons in an effort to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang. Sure, there are new particles and abstract symmetries in the offing for those few who speak the language of quantum field theory. But what about the rest of us?

The classic answer was allegedly given long ago by Michael Faraday, who, when asked what good was electricity, told a government minister that he didn't know but that “one day you will tax it.”

Not being fast enough on my feet, I rattled off the usual suspects. Among the spinoffs from particle physics, besides a robust academic research community, are the Web, which was invented as a tool for physicists to better communicate at CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research, builders of the new collider — and many modern medical imaging methods like M.R.I.'s and PET scans.

These tests sound innocuous and even miraculous: noninvasive and mostly painless explorations of personal inner space, but their use does involve an encounter with forces that sound like they came from the twilight zone. When my wife, Nancy, had a scan known as a Spect last fall, for what seems to have been a false alarm, she had to be injected with a radioactive tracer. That meant she had to sleep in another room for a couple of days and was forbidden to hug our daughter.

The “P” in PET scan, after all, stands for positron, as in the particles that are opposites to the friendly workhorse, the electron, which is to say antimatter, the weird stuff of science-fiction dreams.

I don't know if anyone ever asked Paul Dirac, the British physicist who predicted the existence of antimatter, whether it would ever be good for anything. Some people are now saying that the overuse of scanning devices has helped bankrupt the health care system. Indeed, when I saw the bill for Nancy's scan, I almost fainted, but when I saw how little of it we ourselves had to pay, I felt like ordering up Champagne.

But better medical devices are not why we build these machines that eat a small city's worth of electricity to bang together protons and recreate the fires of the Big Bang. Better diagnoses are not why young scientists spend the best years of their lives welding and soldering and pulling cable through underground caverns inside detectors the size of New York apartment buildings to capture and record those holy fires.

They want to know where we all came from, and so do I. In a drawer at home I have a family tree my brother made as a school project long ago tracing our ancestry back several hundred years in Norway, but it's not enough. Whatever happened in the Big Bang, whatever laws are briefly reincarnated in the unholy proton fires at CERN, not only made galaxies and planets possible, but it also made us possible. How atoms could achieve such a thing is a story mostly untold but worth revering. The Earth's biosphere is the most complicated manifestation of the laws of nature that we know of.


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