Subatomic Politics: Particle Physics and Science Diplomacy

Subatomic Politics: Particle Physics and Science Diplomacy

The Higgs boson has captured the imagination of the public, worldwide. Why? The answer is fundamental to the human race, a feature that sets humans apart from other living species: our curiosity and desire to understand the world we live in. Some of this knowledge is self-serving -- for example, how to cope with diseases or improve our ways of life. But human curiosity goes well beyond just satisfying those practical needs and desires. Whether it be the origin of the universe or the inner dynamics of microscopic particles, we simply want to understand how things work.

Basic research, sometimes called curiosity-driven research, is born out of this fundamental human trait. Particle physics, or the study of the microscopic constituents that make up our physical world and how they interact with each other, is one of the more obtuse areas of curiosity-driven science. Yet discoveries in this field, such as that of the Higgs particle, are often front-page news and the subject of conversation among not just particle physicists but also laypeople.

This underlying popular interest in the scientific questions studied by particle physicists, coupled with the international and nonpolitical nature of the field, makes it an ideal and somewhat unique tool for science diplomacy. Ironically, modern particle physics was born from the effort during World War II to develop the atomic bomb, which itself originated from advances in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics research during the 1930s. Following the war, the same research led directly to the development of dedicated particle accelerators. Many of the physicists who were involved in developing the atomic bomb moved seamlessly on to explore fundamental questions in particle physics on ever-larger and more-powerful particle accelerators.

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