Small Things + Big Science = Huge Payoff?

By Russell Betts
Dean of IIT College of Science Professor of Physics
“Paradoxically, this pursuit of the very small has led us to construct ever-larger accelerators and detection devices.”
Russell Bets
Russell Bets
Photo: Bonnie Robinson

A driving force in science is the pursuit of understanding the ultimate nature of matter and its interactions. Historically, this has led us on a path to smaller and smaller entities: from the elements of the ancient Greeks and the molecules of John Dalton, to atoms and the nucleus of Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford, and now to elementary particles such as quarks and gluons, and—most recently—the Higgs boson.

Paradoxically, this pursuit of the very small has led us to construct ever-larger accelerators and detection devices. To see at ever-smaller distances, we must use particle beams of ever- increasing energy, such as those generated by today’s 27-kilometer-diameter ring of superconducting magnets that compose the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) Large Hadron Collider, arguably the most complex device constructed.

Of course, the discoveries themselves have had tremendous payoffs. Our deep understanding of the quantum world of atoms and atomic systems has enabled the development of the laser, materials for electronic applications, and designer catalysts and pharmaceuticals, for example. For the future, we dream of quantum computers and teleportation. Science fiction becomes reality.

The technologies developed in the evolution of increasingly powerful accelerators and more sophisticated detection systems have found widespread applications outside basic science. The superconducting magnets developed and produced for the first time on an industrial scale for Fermilab’s Tevatron now find common use in magnetic resonance imaging scanners. Novel imaging techniques beyond old-fashioned photographic emulsions are common in medical diagnostics and surgery. The World Wide Web was created at CERN so that scientists in global collaborations could work together more effectively. Thus, the overall goal of scientific discovery has motivated and underwritten the development of new technologies of enormous benefit to us all.

Beyond the “what” of scientific discovery and the “how” of the technologies needed to accomplish the goals, a third and perhaps most important piece of the enterprise is the “who”—the people.

Vannevar Bush, celebrated American engineer and science administrator, characterized scientific research in his seminal report “Science—the Endless Frontier” and cast the enterprise as one of exploration and discovery, one that can motivate and inspire those individuals who engage in it. They are challenged by the unknown and by problems for which there are no clear solutions. So, in addition to the knowledge gained, this research becomes a kind of gymnasium for the mind where intellectual muscles and problem-solving skill sets are developed.

The participants in this enterprise, particularly students, have shown time and time again how the skills they have developed can be applied in many diverse areas outside science itself. They bring together critical and logical thinking with analytical, communication, and collaborative ability so necessary in the world today. Examples of successes are to be found in the worlds of computers and data science, in energy and climate science, in business and finance, in the arts and music, and even in politics and government. This, I believe, is the biggest payoff of all.