This year, twenty two years after its initiation, the CERN Large Hadron Collider – the largest research project ever carried out in human history – became operational. It is said that it is expected to “address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing humanity’s understanding of the deepest laws of nature,” one of which is confirming the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle.
Thousands of physicists, engineers, technicians, and computer programmers from forty countries are involved in this project. The cost of the project is estimated at more than five billion(!) Euro. While Europe eventually built the CERN Large Hadron Collider, in 1993 U.S. Congress officially canceled the counterpart American project due to its heavy costs. Are this project and others like it worth their price?
What are we to make of physicists’ claims to be pursuing the “grand theory of everything”? Are such claims to be taken at face value, or are they fuelled by naive and unwarranted reductionism?
If we do find this theory of everything, is it worth the cost? What benefit will this theory have for people other than the esoteric group of specialists who can understand it?
Was this project inevitable? Could there have been cheaper ways to pursue the same questions?
What stand should humanities and social science people, in particular HPS and STS people, take on this issue? Should they ally themselves with their fellow researchers and support their quest for knowledge for its own sake? Should they try to get some of the pouring money for themselves, and insist on there being positions for ethnographers, ethicists and their like in such projects? Or should they use their own knowledge to problematize physicists’ reductionist claims, and question whether this turn physics took was inevitable?
Moreover, in today’s climate, where humanities programs all over the world are fighting for their survival and are required to justify their existence, should humanities people point out that the physicists are the big spenders, and their existence should be justified as well? Should they even claim to be able to deliver the same goods, namely answers to fundamental questions of “life, the universe and everything” for a fraction of the cost?