Colliding Worlds—A Rare Visit to the CERN Collider Gives a Biologist New Hope
Last week, I was invited to speak about research and innovation at an Aspen Institute meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, held at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, better known to the rest of the world by its acronym, CERN. Like all Aspen Institute meetings, this one flew at a high level, and, needless to say, it was an exhilarating experience. These small meetings (40-50 people) bring together thought leaders from around the world, including presidents, prime ministers, science ministers, Nobel laureates, and research agency directors. And occasionally they invite some plain vanilla folks like me. I have to confess that I am having a hard time containing myself from writing about the discussion, but these meetings are strictly off the record to ensure the most open and candid discussion.
But I can report on a spectacular visit that our group made to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Normally, visitors are not allowed inside the 170-meter-deep underground LHC tunnel to see (and touch!) the accelerator and the particle detector. We were incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity.
Although my knowledge of particle physics comes from a single physics class I took in college, I felt like a kid in candy store. There I was, standing right next to accelerator that this summer managed to recreate a mini-Big Bang and detect the existence of the Higgs boson. The LHC is 27 kilometers in diameter (17 miles!) and traverses the Swiss-French border, although I was told that particles run much too fast to show passports at the borders. The accelerator is not an exact circle. Sections of the tunnel are straight because the protons are run in the opposite directions and when they get closer to the collision point, there is an obvious need for a linear path to achieve maximum precision. The detector is essentially a gigantic (truly) camera, which snaps 80 million pictures per second. It should make Hollywood stars on the red carpet at the Academy Awards jealous. The tiny bosons get so much more attention from the detector than all the cameras in Hollywood. Science vs. Entertainment, 1-0.
The new spokesperson for CERN along with the Director General were our guides. The spokesperson is an engineer who was involved in the construction of the accelerator and his enthusiasm for the project was contagious. A similar animation was evident in the faces of all the scientists that I met at the LHC. Their excitement about particle physics led me to make comparisons with cell biology and biology, in general.
Particle physics is the ultimate BIG science. Nothing could be further away from the LHC, both in actual and humans scale then our much valued and essential investigator-initiated basic cell research funded through NIH R01 grants than the LHC. It is illogical to ask which approach is better; we need to use big science or small science, wherever it is appropriate.
Indeed, CERN is big science in a way that does not exist in biology, at least at present. Possibly the closest analogy would be the Human Genome Project but even there, the parallel does not hold exactly true. Essentially the Human Genome Project was a coordinated effort of many labs around the world, tackling a major challenge by dividing it up. But the HGP it was not one big lab, using one big instrument, and asking one single big question. In biology, large scale science of the LHC variety is not imaginable for now. Perhaps in the future as biology becomes more and more quantitative, computational, and data-heavy, there might be a common problem best approached through a large-scale common resource that would be beyond the powers of anyone group or institution to create, but this approach is likely to come true only under some very special future circumstances. At the moment, I can only see that a purely hypothetical Big Bio project would have to be limited to a very small fraction of the life science research budget. What best fuels our type of basic research is the small lab approach that most ASCB members are familiar with.
I was struck by another aspect of the LHC. The experimental part of the CERN project came long after the theoretical. The idea behind the Higgs boson was an incredibly robust theoretical model long before anyone thought of an experiment to test its validity. The Higgs boson idea was probably developed in an ordinary office using paper and pen (or chalk and blackboard) while computers were later used to explore its complexities and then much later to work out the experimental details. Essentially, the experimentalists had to catch up with the theoretical physicists.
With the “proof” of the Higgs boson and the existence of such a magnificent instrument as the LHC, perhaps it will next be the turn of theoretical scientists to catch up with experimental data. As biologists know very well, experiments always spring surprises. I see biology as more mature on its experimental side, chiefly because of the advances in cellular and molecular biology. And yet as I’ve said before on this blog, cell biology is rapidly becoming much more quantitative and computational especially in the area now broadly defined as biophysics. I would not be surprised to see biology in the future turn the opposite direction from physics by relying more on strong theoretical approaches to problem solving.
At a human/social level, I have found the physicists at CERN more open to social interactions than biologists. They also seemed more comfortable with team work. All the LHC scientists I talked with were incredibly focused on their common quest. No one steered the discussion to jobs or funding. It was physics all the time and always in the first person plural—we. No one said, “In my lab I study…” or “My interest is in…” They projected a very clear sense that whatever detail or part of the whole was their special task, they were all working together on one project. High-energy physics training must be very different from what we receive in biology.
Finally with the science policy side of soul wide-awake, I kept a close eye on the politicians in my LHC tour group. Their eyes were wide-open. Many of them had been parties to the discussions that led to funding this massive project with no certain outcome. Walking with the politicians, I could sense their pride. A very big machine used in a very big and very successful project makes a strong political case for scientific investment.
In bioscience, our trump card is the clear social value of biomedical research. Health is an issue so much closer to home than understanding what happened at the moment of the Big Bang. Our science is certainly easier to justify to governments, if we can point to the amazing returns on investment generated by improved human health.
Looking back, I can see why the U.S. Congress loved the Human Genome Project. It was finite with a clear attainable goal, a budget, and a time-frame. True exploratory research—what’s sometimes called discovery science—offers Congress none of these guarantees. And yet we know very well that unexpected and unpredicted breakthroughs are the main drivers of biomedical progress.
I think we need to vastly improve our knowledge about the economics of discovery science. We need new evidence to make a clearer case for basic research in terms of return-on-investment. Alas, a lab bench cluttered with dishes, laptops, and Sharpie pens may one day become the site of a Nobel-winning discovery in cancer biology but a small, overcrowded biology lab is never going to have the emotional hit for visiting legislators of being conducted around 17 mile-large eye-popping instrument.
Often we underestimate how important is this issue of making our case for bioscience. We need more powerful, data-driven studies that reveal how admittedly expensive inputs in basic research will yield, if not big collider rings, great quantifiable economic and social benefits for our funders—taxpayers. We treat this side of the science equation too lightly and I am very pleased to hear that there is a new initiative in Washington called Science Counts, which ASCB is joining, to do exactly this critical work. When the underground LHC tour ended, we rode up to the surface together—politicians, physicists, and one very excited cell biologist who was hoping that some of the glamor from the Higgs boson had rubbed off. I can’t wait to get to work on building the case for our smaller scale but powerful science!