While many technological innovations are initially created for specific and sometimes complex purposes ― often at a very high cost ― one should not underestimate the potential of that technology to flood across industries, advancing them and creating value for businesses and society at large.
What can kill this potential, however, is not being able to communicate this effectively to a broad audience, including financiers and policy-makers. When addressing a non-expert audience, it is important to use simple language to explain in-depth ideas and to focus on the outcome these present.
When effectively communicated, even the most sophisticated of concepts can be understood and its importance relayed. As a case in point, let’s consider the mother of all machines, one which took thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians to build: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.
Initially launched in 1987, and with an annual operating budget of US$1 billion ― not including other costs that total more than US$13 billion ― the project operates at the very boundaries of scientific knowledge, and hopes to bridge quantum theories to reality. But what is often overlooked and not always well articulated by the media is the potential of the LHC to transcend multiple industries. So grab your hard hats, and let’s delve in.
The Science of it All
The main objective of CERN is a biggie: to find out what the universe is made of — and how it works — by studying its fundamental particles. The LHC aims to achieve this by essentially making particles accelerate and crash into each other in a controlled environment, and then recording the results of these collisions.
By doing so, the first moments of the Big Bang itself — the cataclysmic event that created our universe — are recreated. The hope is that it will advance understanding of the laws of physics at the most infinitesimal yet fundamental level. The huge amount of energy present in these collisions lead the particles to break apart and recombine in somewhat bizarre ways, which can reveal flaws in the standard model of physics.
It’s a massive goal, so perhaps it’s not surprising the LHC is the largest machine in the world, stretching an impressive 27 kilometres.
The LHC has already identified the elusive Higgs Boson particle ― a particle that gives mass to other particles ― and now aims to shed light on a whole host of other theoretical phenomena, including “Dark Energy” ― the main theoretical cause of the expansion of the universe. While these may be challenging for non-scientists to grapple with, what people do not realise is that particle accelerators (PAs) are already influencing industry and society in several ways.
1. The Greater Good
To begin with, there are great economic benefits to the high tech industry involved in CERN’s procurement contracts. There are more than 30,000 PAs active worldwide which have a monetary value that is a thousand times larger than the initial capital cost. However, the effect on the world is much larger than just sales. The profound impact of accelerators extends to areas like medicine, archaeology, art and air pollution studies. They are also being used to develop alternative energy sources.
Arguably one of the most significant of all applications of PAs is their use in the treatment of cancer in the form of radiation therapy. Currently, about half of all patients with cancer will undergo radiation therapy. The most common form of radiation therapy is radiotherapy.
The aim of all new techniques in radiotherapy is to deliver a high dose of radiation directly to the cancer cells to get a high cure rate while reducing the radiation dose in healthy tissue, reducing side effects. Proton therapy, a radiotherapy technique, shows clear signs of reducing side effects and in some types of cancer, an increased possibility of curing the cancer altogether.
3. Art and Archaeology
PAs have been applied to art and archaeology to aid in studying and dating precious artefacts. While Mass Spectroscopy (AMS) aids in precisely dating archaeological finds, Ion Beam Analysis (IBA) assists in examining the composition of various layers of a painting without harming it. These techniques boast the ability to reveal the original palette used by an artist to create a work of art.
4. The Environment
One of the most serious challenges facing mankind today are environmental issues ranging from diminishing fossil fuel supplies, an increase in carbon emissions and increasing energy demands. Accelerators are expected to be a vital component in the development of new technologies to help protect the environment.
Already available are techniques using small electron accelerators to reduce the amount of harmful gaseous emissions pumped into the atmosphere by thermal power plants, with similar applications to water treatment plants to clean waste water.
5. Alternative Energy
With the rising average cost diesel and an increasingly carbon conscious population, the interest in alternative fuels is on the rise. One application of PAs in this area is where bio-fuel is pre-treated with electron beams resulting in more efficient fuel and a reduction in harmful by-products as compared to other methods.
KISS: Keep it Simple, Science
As we consider the potential of this technology to change the world we live in for the better, it is equally important to look at the bigger picture, where the broader audience whose investment and interest is of paramount importance. Communication is therefore key to bridging the notable knowledge gap between scientists and society. Ignorance of science can be avoided by better communication. If the writing is simple enough for a non-scientific audience to form an understanding, yet purposeful enough to leave a lasting impression, that will inspire action.