When science and business collide

 

THE COMMISSIONING of the massive new particle collider at Cern near Geneva is a pivotal event in the advancement of the physical sciences but also in the progress of human knowledge. When the machine, the Large Hadron Collider or LHC, comes fully into service and begins to smash particles together, it will benefit all of us in subtle yet important ways.

The discoveries the LHC will deliver about the fundamental nature of matter and the insights it will give into the structure of the universe will thrill scientists but also have the capacity to touch our lives.

The LHC has been built to achieve tremendous levels of energy and the temperatures it will produce will easily surpass that of the sun. But the majority of accelerators installed around the world are much smaller and are used in the treatment of cancer. These devices produce beams of particles that can be used in the latest forms of radiation therapy and have become an important part of medical treatments for the disease.

Many new technologies were developed to allow a device as complex as the LHC to come into operation. It will send bunches of particles containing millions of protons around the collider's 27km-long ring in a beam much finer than the width of a human hair. It uses powerful electromagnets to accomplish this feat and these must be kept at extraordinarily low temperatures down to about minus 270 degrees. These technologies are essential to Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, but they are also available to companies and innovators who can find ways to use them.

The LHC is built underground in a tunnel 100 metres beneath the Jura Mountains straddling the Swiss-French border. The tunnel was built for the LHC's immediate predecessor at Cern, the LEP or Large Electron-Positron Collider. This device, like the new collider, produced billions of pages of scientific data, something which encouraged Cern to develop a vast network of computers that linked scientists around the world. This network grew to become the world wide web, an entity that now supports global business and commerce.

The much more powerful LHC also needed a way to distribute still larger quantities of data, leading to the creation of its Grid computer network. This is already in place, including a key Grid node at Trinity College Dublin where 768 computer processors sit ready to begin analysing the LHC data when it begins to flow later this autumn when particle collisions begin.

Valuable commercial opportunities flow from such a large endeavour, but Ireland is not in a position to benefit because the Government has yet to sign us up as members of Cern. The cost is not insignificant, of the order of €6 million annually, and the current economic picture does not look promising. Yet membership would give us guaranteed access not just to the research but also the opportunity to supply goods and services to this €4.2 billion enterprise. The Government should think again about membership so that Ireland's scientists and businesses can share in the benefits flowing from this historic adventure.