Bang for Your Buck

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Large Hadron Collider

What would you do if I gave you eight billion dollars and told you to use it to benefit all of humanity?

I know what I would do. There are a number of places I would try to place that money to work on world food shortages, health crises, pollution, and energy problems. I even wrote up an extensive footnote describing some of the incredible advances being made in those areas that I would help fund.

What I would not spend it on is a Large Hadron Collider. Over two thousand scientist from around the world spent over ten years developing a Large Hadron Collider, with the total price tag coming out to somewhere between eight and ten billion dollars. Let’s use the five W’s I learned in fourth grade composition class to try to figure this one out.

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Who? CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research (yes, the name doesn’t match), a multinational laboratory with 20 member nations. It focuses primarily on high energy-physics.

What? The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator. It is a massive 17 mile long underground tunnel shaped in a perfect circle. Scientist use a number of processes to speed tiny particles faster and faster until they are whizzing around this massive circle at a speed of about 180,000 miles per second. Operating it takes more electricity than is consumed by the whole city of Geneva.

Where? On the border of France and Switzerland, with most of the Collider in France. It is deep beneath the ground, 50-175 feet below the surface.

When? The budget was approved and work began in 1995, and it will finally began operating in June of 2008.

Why? I have no idea!

Actually, I do have an idea, I just have difficulty explaining why this was so important that it took precedent over solving world food shortages, health crises, diminishing energy supplies, and a host of other problems. So, here we go.

The basic building blocks of our bodies are cells. They are made of organelles, which are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Electrons are tiny energy balls whirring around the real mass of our atoms, the protons and neutrons. However, even those are made of smaller particles known as quarks and leptons. These are the smallest particles known to man at the present. There is a theory that there is an even smaller particle, called by some the God particle, by others the Higgs boson, that unifies all the matter of the universe, and gives it its energy. One of the goals of the Large Hadron Collider is to find these elusive particles.

When you have tiny particles whizzing at each other at massive speeds, and they then collide, the force is greater than that of a ten ton bomb, and out of that explosion, it is theorized, we will get a glimpse of the God particle. There is a particle accelerator in Illinois that has been running for years, and still has not found the God particle, but scientist are hoping to find it in the Large Hadron Collider, which will speed up the particles much faster than the one in the US. However, even if scientists discover the Higgs boson particle, there is already discussion about another force that is behind it, a yet more elusive particle that gives the Higgs boson its mass.

Two things bother me about this whole scenario. The first is the fact that the world’s leading physicists recognize that there is some invisible force that underlies the entire universe, which gives everything its existence. They even call it the God particle. John Archibald Wheeler, the former president of the American Physical Society, and one of the greatest physicist of our generation, concluded that underlying all matter is an “idea” (Can someone teach him how to spell G-O-D?) However, many of those same scientists are self proclaimed atheists!

Every time scientists discover a yet tinier particle, they learn that there is something behind it too, something not findable, unknowable, something so powerful that it is the cause of the universe’s existence. But in a 1996 Nature magazine study of “leading scientists” 93% said they didn’t believe in God. Even Archibald Wheeler himself, while recognizing that the entire universe exists on an “idea” asked that for his 90th birthday present, he didn’t want to hear the word God all day (juvenile, if you ask me). This is in stark contrast with the population at large whose atheism percentages run between 2.4% and 3.8%.

There have been some notable changes of heart, such as Prof. Antony Flew. Long considered one of the worlds staunchest vanguards of atheism, upon seeing all the latest scientific research Prof. Flew reversed his long held position, and recognized that there must be a God. But so many other scientists, people who are privy to what incredible concoctions are cooking in God’s kitchen, who understand just how immeasurably complex this universe is, still cling to the notion of a world that just evolved on its own!

The only way I can understand this is based on an idea taught to us by our Sages, that this world is built upon a parallel system. The higher the ability something has to become elevated, the greater its ability to fall. People who are in a position to witness the most miraculous things and become the greatest believers, are also in the position to become the greatest deniers.

The next aspect of the Large Hadron Collider which bothers me is that I feel there is a huge problem in the priorities of the scientific community. Spending billions of dollars just to satisfy theoretical physics questions that will not change our lives an iota seems so wasteful when we live in a world filled with crises. It seems selfish to dedicate so many resources to a project like this when, if we would divert all that brainpower and money to solving mankind’s problems, we could accomplish so much. It even seems hypocritical that the scientific community that warns us about global warming and tells us to use energy-efficient bulbs and appliances, uses more electricity than an entire city just to satisfy their curiosity about obscure physics concepts that less than 1% of the world has ever heard of.

This gripe of mine extends to NASA as well. The US spends 11 billion a year on NASA, whose main project is building a lunar lander that should be operational in 2020. The last big project was a Mars rover mission where we spent billions to watch a sophisticated go-kart crawl around Mars less than a mile a day, and beam back stunning images of Mars.

While this is going on, Americans are hurting at the pumps with $4 dollar gas, hurting at the doctor’s office with $15,000 medical insurance policies, hurting in our schools with dropping literacy rates and increased dropouts, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. We also have a crumbling infrastructure, over 40 million Americans without health insurance, trillions in national debt, and prison systems that are bursting at the seams. Somehow, I think there could be a better place to spend 11 billion than on a lunar lander for 2020.

The Talmud (Megillah 29) tells us that when there are pressing communal needs, like burying someone or helping people get married and it can’t be done by others, we even forgo the studying of Torah, the highest form of learning, to do the deed.

You and I don’t plan national budgets, but we do budget our charity money and our time. When allocating our volunteer time or charitable funds, let’s focus on using it to bring out the greatest good for God, Jews, and all of mankind.

Footnote: Here is how I would use my eight billion dollars. I would use a few billion to speed up the amazing progress in research into new farming methods. Scientists are learning to build high-rise farms, where one could plant different crops on each floor. Humidity, water content of the soil, and temperature would be controlled by computers on each floor, to maintain constant optimum growing conditions. Unused water trickles down, and waters crops on lower floors, thus conserving one of our most valuable resources, and allowing for farming in drier regions. (Presently, agricultural usage of water is 4 times the amount of humans water consumption use, this process could reverse that.) Rotating mirrors on special tracks would make sure not only that every floor got sunlight, but that the sunlight would be available all day no matter where the sun was (unless it’s hiding behind the clouds).

These high-rise farms could be built near urban centers, eliminating the exorbitant expense and wasted energy used transporting fruits and vegetables halfway across the world. Recently, the wholesale price of wheat tripled because China was buying up millions of tons of the US wheat crop, while in my fruit market, I buy peppers from South America and kiwis from New Zealand. My first few billion would go toward solving world hunger problems.

I would spend another billion or so on boosting the world’s health. Currently, there is an international project that is cataloguing the approximately sixty five thousand different pharmaceutical drugs available in the world. The goal is to find where they overlap, and what other illnesses a drug can treat. (E.g. Most drugs used to treat bi-polar disorder were originally developed for epilepsy.) The more uses a drug has, the cheaper it becomes because it has a larger target base, and the money spent in development gets paid back sooner.

Africa, which is plagued by malaria, and whose people are usually too poor to afford the expensive Western medicines, has just been helped tremendously by this project. They found an allergy medication that is very effective fighting the malaria bug, and it can be bought for the equivalent of ten cents in most drugstores in Africa. The project needs about a billion dollars to catalogue every drug on the market, to find more cures for more illnesses from drugs already in circulation, and I would fund that.

I would help fund the development of economical wind farms, solar farms, hydrogen cars, and many other renewable resource technologies. That would allow us to stop spewing out billions of tons of filth into the air we breath, and we could stop paying terrorist regimes $100+ a barrel for their oil, which they then use to fund global terrorism and instability. These are just a few of the many important causes I would spend my eight billion on.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.