What Good Is The High Bosson

PROFESSOR ROLF-DIETER HEUER, DIRECTOR OF THE EXPERIMENTS BEING CONDUCTED AT CERN, THE EUROPEAN ORGANIZATION FOR NUCLEAR RESEARCH IN GENEVA, SWITZERLAND, AND ONE OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST SCIENTIFIC LABORATORIES, WAS IN ANKARA FOR THE OPENING OF THE ‘WE ARE ACCELERATING SCIENCE’ EXHIBITION AT MIDDLE EAST TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY (METU).’

Prof Heuer, who was in Ankara recently for ‘We Are Accelerating Science’, a traveling exhibition opening for the first time in a non-CERN-member country, was received with great interest by faculty members and students alike. Making a brief explanation prior to the opening, the CERN Director-General gave a more broad-ranging talk after signing the visitors’ book.  In his talk, Professor Heuer briefed listeners on what is being done in the CERN laboratories and the progress achieved so far. Following his talk, we had a chance to chat briefly with him about the experiments. Tickled by our observation, ‘You are the rock star of particle physics!’, Prof. Heuer spoke with us in the VIP Lounge of METU’s Kemal Kurdaş Convention and Culture Center. He started by saying he was very pleased to be so well-recognized for his work and by the interest it has received. In reply to our first question about the experiments, he admitted it was not at all a question that was foreign to him. The best-known aspect of the CERN experiments, and the one people are most curious about, is whether or not the Higgs boson will be found.  The Higgs, the sole missing particle of the so-called Standard Model put forward by particle physics,  will,  if it can be found, will in a nutshell help us answer questions about what gives matter mass and how matter was created in the Universe’s first moments. So, what use is this information going to be to us? A staunch proponent of basic research in science, Prof. Heuer replies, “I can’t say anything definite on that subject. Anything I say would be mere speculation.” However, the technology developed up to now for research at CERN has been instrumental in developing the PET units used for tomography in hospitals. The ‘P’ in PET (Positron Emission Tomography) stands for the positron, in other words, the anti-electron.

TO BE HONEST, I DON’T KNOW
The World Wide Web and GRID or Cloud Computing are other technologies that emerged in connection with the CERN experiments and are now part and parcel of our everyday life. When we asked Prof. Heuer if he couldn’t make a prediction regarding the use of the results that will emerge at CERN, he cited an example from the life of Michael Faraday, the Father of Electromagnetism: “While Faraday was conducting his experiments, the Prime Minister of the day once asked him what good the results he obtained would be. ‘If I have to be honest, Sir, I don’t know’, replied Faraday.” Heuer also pointed out that when Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays, he was not intending to come up with a way of looking inside the human body. In basic scientific research, added Heuer, the purpose is not application but the production of new knowledge.

SCIENCE FICTION
It is extremely difficult for someone who is not interested in particle physics, or in physics in general, to understand what is being done at CERN and analyze the findings. Even Prof. Heuer has no clear answer regarding in which areas the data obtained at CERN might be used. So we tried to use our imagination a little. First we asked Prof. Heuer if the results at CERN would have an impact on our approach to technological singularity (i.e., the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human intelligence). He said CERN was going to make a big leap forward in the near future but he didn’t think it would go as far as that. Nevertheless, he added that there is no end to knowledge and that as long as human beings exist there will be always be new discoveries and that science and technology will never end. To explain what he meant he used this metaphor: “Human beings will always ask questions. Every question that is answered will open a door to a new room with yet other doors. And to open the doors in that room other questions will be asked, and the process will go on and on.” We wondered if the teleportation and inter-galactic travel imagined by science fiction writers could become reality in a possible future. Slightly taken aback at this, Professor Heuer first chuckled and then said that he liked science and fiction better separately.  “Even today,” he added, “we are surrounded by technology we could not have imagined a few years ago. But in my opinion we will need a very long time for such developments.”
When our conversation with Prof. Heuer was over, he tried to leave for dinner. But, faced again with the interest a rock star might encounter, he kindly consented to a photo with a group of eager students.

SCIENCE FILLS A HALL
Following the opening of the We Are Accelerating Science exhibition, Prof Heuer spoke for an hour. Before his talk, Prof. Ahmet Acar, President of Middle East Technical University, observed that with the exception of concerts this was the first time an academic and scientific event had ever filled the hall to overflowing.