Two cardinal scientific events have taken place in the last two months: the successful landing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s rover Curiosity on Mars and the detection of the Higgs boson, a keystone particle in the theory of how the subatomic world works, by the Large Hadron Collider at the Europe’s particle physics laboratory in Geneva. Both events have received wide press coverage, but the impression given is that they are two different, distinct types of explorations, when their scientific objectives are the same and their data gathering capabilities are potentially synergistic.
While the two investigative machines are vastly different in their technology and engineering, and their exploratory venues are equally different, they have a common scientific purpose: to provide a better understanding of how the universe was formed, how it evolved into its present state and what its future might be. Focusing attention on the LHC and Curiosity’s engineering and technological differences prevents the general public and particularly policymakers from understanding their common purpose, and quite possibly inhibiting their potential to interact cooperatively.
The LHC recreates conditions in its 17-mile circular underground tunnel that were present shortly after the birth of the universe and allows scientists to identify and study the elements that emerged from the Big Bang. The intent of the investigation is to work forward in time to piece together how these basic particles and forces combined and evolved into atoms, molecules and condensed formations that make up the current universe.
The rover Curiosity will work backward in time by examining the geology (and biology if there is any) of Mars. The Red Planet provides a sharp contrast to Earth and should reveal clues as to why and how the two evolved into such different environments. While Curiosity was marketed to the public as a search for evidence of life, the overall plan is much broader: to study layers of rock representing hundreds of millions of years of Martian history, and potentially approaching the early universe conditions simulated in the LHC. It has enough investigative equipment on board to make such an exhaustive search and its nuclear-powered energy source can sustain it for many years.
Emphasizing basic science as the major purpose of Mars exploration also should influence the debate about the need to send astronauts to the planet. NASA administrator Charles Bolden said after the successful landing, “The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze a trail for human footprints on the surface of Mars.” If obtaining scientific information is the primary objective rather than as an engineering challenge or an adventure for astronauts, those footprints will not be needed.
Furthermore, there are other planets in the solar system where environments are too hostile for human probes that should be explored in order to provide a comprehensive survey of the galaxy. The enormous amount of money it would require to fund a human landing on Mars could be put to better scientific use on rover type investigations of these other planets. And now that the new landing capability has proven to be effective, technologically sophisticated rovers like Curiosity can be built more cheaply and quickly and landed safely.
Telescopic probes are the third leg of this overall quest to improve our understanding of the cosmic landscape. Because light travels at a finite speed, the further into the universe light capturing telescopes like the Hubble can penetrate, the closer the observations approach the very early universe conditions the LHC has artificially created.
A synergistic relationship already has occurred between astronomers and LHC. For some time, astrophysicists have hypothesized the existence of something they call “dark matter.” In theory, it is composed of particles that cannot interact with the electromagnetic force, and thus do not produce light so they cannot be seen by telescopes, but they do interact gravitationally and stop galaxies from flying apart as they rotate. Calculations suggest that there is five times as much dark matter in the universe as there is ordinary matter. Now that the LHC has found the Higgs, its operators are turning their attention to experimentally detecting dark matter particles as a high priority.
The better the general public and policy makers understand the common purpose of these three scientific endeavors, the more likely cooperative investigations such as the search for dark matter will find proponents and funding. It is not hard to imagine synergistic opportunities occurring between Hubble and Curiosity, and Curiosity and LHC. And from such exchanges of data and hypotheses testing, a new more encompassing understanding of the universe almost certainly will emerge.
Garth Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied science and has 35 years of experience in operations research. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.