The heart of the LHC is more than science

Summary:Cern's Large Hadron Collider is science at its biggest. It is also profoundly human

Anyone planning and implementing a large IT project will, and must, be aware of the dangers of failure.

A proper understanding of risk management makes an opportunity profitable, and you cannot manage what you do not know. But few people can ever have had the total physical destruction of the planet on the list of direct consequences of getting things wrong.

Fortunately for Cern's chief technology officer, Sverre Jarp, that risk is far smaller than anything the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will ever measure. The upside of the experiment, however, will be far larger than mere science.

The experiment itself mirrors such thoughts. The actual physics happens at the infinitesimal point of collision, and the cubic metres of space and matter through which the quantum debris punches. Everything from there onwards is information engineering, with the data pouring into a planetary storage and analysis system quite beyond the reach of journalistic superlatives. The end result of the physics will change our conception of reality; the end result of the IT will have its own profound effects.

Humans have co-evolved with technology. It's our primary attribute as a species. Neanderthal man had efficient tools, little changed over thousands of years. Homo sapiens' tools show constant development, coinciding with cultural and practical developments. It seems that 'good enough' has never been, well, good enough.

The same will be true of the LHC's IT. The expertise evolved in developing its IT systems will be sorely needed in mainstream technology; we are moving towards a world where our computers will habitually monitor enormous amounts of data and share their findings, in the small parts of life, as well as the large. In IT, above all, the big science of today becomes everyday life tomorrow.

But LHC stands for more than that. It is proof of the transformative potential of imagination first, and IT second; what you can do when you have big ideas, clear goals and the determination to make the tools do the job. Too often in enterprise IT — and elsewhere in human affairs — the tools set the agenda and soak up all the energy, time and money that should be spent on doing the real job.

The LHC will stand as proof that we can move beyond such restrictive thoughts; that we can create truly wonderful things — big and small — if we let ourselves. Medieval people had cathedrals that moved their souls but produced mostly bishops. We may count ourselves lucky that our modern cathedrals, for all they lie buried underground, are capable of so much more.

Topics: Emerging Tech

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