Making light of big science

The Diamond Light synchrotron is big science and big money. It's also a big investment in the future of IT
Written by Leader , Contributor on

The opening of the Diamond Light synchrotron near Oxford, like the completion of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, shows the health of basic research on a grand scale. Yet big science has been out of favour. It didn't make good on many of the promises scientists made for it in the mid-20th century, and even the greatest successes seemed overblown in retrospect. A man on the moon was wonderful but somehow pointless to the man stuck at Morden because of frozen tracks.

Nevertheless, we've all come out ahead. You can trace a direct line from the basic techniques developed for Apollo's guidance computers to the cheap, ubiquitous IT in your life today.

At the top end of high-performance computing, raw exploratory science is driving advances in processing, storage and communication. IT's biggest problem isn't building ever more capable hardware, it's working out what to do with it — and we're learning how. You may not know what you'll be using in 10 years' time, but the key ideas that will make it useful are being worked on right now by physicists, cosmologists and mathematicians.

That's not to dismiss the actual science. Prosaically, the Diamond Light project has 10 percent of its time earmarked for industrial research. That 10 percent is fully booked. Immediate and effective advances are expected in material science that will directly advance semiconductor and storage technologies. The other 90 percent is even more exciting: that's going to reveal fine structures in everything they can lay their hands on. From immunology to the study of extraterrestrial materials, there won't be much that doesn't benefit.

Finding things out is one of the best ways to spend our time and money, and communicating what we've found and why it matters is the key to maintaining the excitement. Here, technology can pay back some of the debt it owes. As Hubble has so eloquently shown, the closer everyone can get to science, the better it works. No project is so massive it can't speak to our individual sense of wonder: the web has a special gift for making that connection. Like the computer itself, big science has become personal — and that's the biggest breakthrough of them all.


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