One LHC A Year
    By Tommaso Dorigo | September 21st 2012 05:54 AM | 21 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    If you chance to take part in a conversation with people arguing that they do not want their tax money to go into building huge science gadgets whose utility for humanity is doubtful and null to them in particular, you have better be equipped with a sound way to shut their mouth.

    Of course, one way is to explain with patience the importance of basic science, the investment in the future, etcetera. You might like to insert well-learned quotes, such as "Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza" ("You were not made to live like beasts, but to follow virtue and knowledge" - Ulysses in Dante Alighieri's "Inferno"). Well, good luck with that - I bet your argument will not go very far with the kind of opposition I have in mind.

    Instead, consider this fact. Italy, who is one of the contributors to CERN, and thus helped financing the construction of the Large Hadron Collider  in measure proportional to their gross internal product, is a country full of people who visit magicians, tarot readers, healers, etcetera. This is a huge phenomenon, and an economy which fully (estimated 99%) escapes taxation. In Italy every year an estimated 6B euros (about 7.5 billion dollars) is spent in these activities, according to a Eurispes 2010 investigation (sorry, the linked report is in Italian - I am sure it exists in English as well though).

    6B euros is about the cost of the full LHC, or just a bit less. This means that Italy, alone, could have fully financed the LHC effortlessly if magicians and other charlatans had been stripped of that moneys, illegally earned. Or that, if those clowns had paid their taxes, Italy could have fully financed the LHC in two and a half years. (I remind you that constructing the LHC took several years).

    So you can tell your anti-science friends that it is because of people like them, who prefer to believe in magic than in science and waste money in irrational activities, that some of their taxes are spent to finance science. If the LHC appears a huge investment of money, the sum spent becomes ridiculously small if you think that a country like Italy spent in its construction over a decade a sum of money that its citizens spend in four weeks for foolish beliefs (and I am not even discussing religion here ;-).


    I would never dare to correct you on anything about science, but as an italian I have to correct your misatribution of those famous words. They were said by Ulissyes, but they are from Dante's Inferno, not Homer's Odissey.

    That's right! Sorry for the lapsus and thanks for the correction. I'll correct the text.
    Yes, yes, all these money wasted, it's terrible.

    BTW, could you recommend me a good magician?

    T, life is more complex than HEP financing :)

    Running several INFNs and contributing heavily to LHC, may indeed generate the need of magicians and other "alternatives" for the incumbents and their relatives and families... :)


    The USA spends more on air-conditioning alone for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq than the entire NASA budget.

    That's a good one indeed, but one might argue that air conditioning is for the well-being of workers, while visiting magicians and card readers, or worse still, healers and other fakes is bad for one's health!
    I have two Dante quotes which I have often used in a scientific context.

    The first one is about not getting distracted, especially by multi-tasking.  It’s from Purgatorio Canto V, where the spirits notice that Dante himself, unlike his guide Virgil or they themselves, casts a shadow.  Virgil tells Dante:
    Vien dietro a me, e lascia dir le genti:
    sta come torre ferma, che non crolla
    già mai la cima per soffiar di venti;

    ché sempre l'omo in cui pensier rampolla
    sovra pensier, da sé dilunga il segno,
    perché la foga l'un de l'altro insolla.

    (Come after me, and leave the people to their talking: stand like a firm tower, whose top never bends however strong the wind // because always, if a man lets one thought pile on top of another, he automatically distances his target, because one thought dilutes the force of another.)

    In the next one, Paradiso XVI, Dante meets his great-grandfather who fell fighting the Turks in the Crusades:
    O poca nostra nobiltà di sangue,
    se glorïar di te la gente fai
    qua giù dove l'affetto nostro langue,

    mirabil cosa non mi sarà mai:
    ché là dove appetito non si torce,
    dico nel cielo, io me ne gloriai.

    Ben se' tu manto che tosto raccorce:
    sì che, se non s'appon di dì in die,
    lo tempo va dintorno con le force.
    (Oh our poor nobility of blood: if you cause people to glory in you down here (on Earth) where our affections wear out // It will never cause me to wonder that, up in Heaven where appetites are not twisted, there I gloried in you.

    Really you are a mantle which swiftly shrinks, since if you are not added to day on day, time cuts away at you with scissors.)

    My take on that one: we have to keep refining our scientific techniques, or we lose them.  How many laboratory skills, that I managed as a young man, had become blunted as I got older.  Not only that, but in the world, things like glass blowing skills, quickly knocking up a bit of electronic equipment, etc.

    And certainly I marvel at the experimental dexterity of scientists of former generations.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    if a man lets one thought pile on top of another, he automatically distances his target, because one thought dilutes the force of another 
    I hadn't seen that one in a while. It's a great quote!

    Today I told my friend David Finkelstein of your post saying
    that Italians happily spend Euro 6 B annually on
    "... magicians, tarot readers ...".
    He said
    that the LHC should be marketed as
    a magic device designed to explore
    the full meaning of the Tarot.

    For example, you could say that
    some physics models are based on E6
    and E6 has 78 dimensions
    each of which corresponds to one of the 78 Tarot cards
    an upgraded LHC should produce over 300/fb of data
    showing how the 78 are correlated with each other
    for every Euro 1,000 given to the cause of the LHC,
    a person would get a proportionate share
    of the positive karma produced by expanded knowledge of Tarot.


    Then there's the healing power of magnets, and the LHC's got big ones. People could visit it to be cured of their arthritis.

    Having had a life in academic science (high energy theory) for a decade, I feel that I have at least some insight into big science funding. Tammaso, on the issue of funding, you do a disservice to the public with this post. If you delve deeply into what you suggest, it presents a very ugly face on the behalf of scientists.

    First, ask the basic, fundamental question: “Why use public funds for scientific research at all?”

    This is an important question, and while people - including scientists - waffle on about how scientific research represents a higher purpose, its answer lies in a much deeper economic issue. Basic science is produced with zero marginal cost – that is, the results are effectively given away. This situation creates what economists call an externality: direct economic benefits accrue to people who do not pay the full cost in the production of the benefit. Externalities present real problems – less of the good that everyone enjoys will be produced. I think we can agree that scientific knowledge benefits everyone on the planet and for all generations to come. One solution to overcome the externality is to have government subsidize the production of the good affected by the externality. Basic scientific research falls under this problem. We need government funding because otherwise too little research would be conducted leaving us with a suboptimal division of resources in society. This is the only economic argument for using the force of government to make people fund research.

    Because we cannot rely on prices to communicate how much research to subsidize, we must rely on the efforts of our government scientific funding agencies. Their task is difficult and results are not perfect, remember research ultimately isn't about too much or too little, it's about “good” and “bad” (and if we are honest, a lot of bad research comes along for the ride with government subsidization). But, for all the shame and drudgery of this task, I think government does a fairly good job of it, and the LHC, a long with all the other basic scientific research performed through government funds, is proof positive of those efforts.

    Now, how people spend their money and how rational or irrational you view their beliefs presents a much different issue. I cannot climb into people's heads and determine how much joy they receive from tarot card readings or any other “silly” activity they might enjoy. We should allow people the greatest possible freedom to pursue what brings them happiness. Remember, people have more information about their preferences than you do. The people you deride voluntarily enter into an exchange with other people, no one was coerced. This issue of “illegally” earned money is nonsense – no force was used. (Maybe some of these people are going around Italy's red tape to set up a business, but that is probably a good thing for Italy in the end.) When you argue that we could have funded the LHC by stripping “charlatans” you are arguing for state sanctioned coercion between two agreeable parties, not to solve the externality presented by basic scientific research, but because you disagree with how these people elect to use their freedom to make themselves happy. Frankly, that position is ugly. It borders dangerously close to reaching into Italy's past to touch something far more ugly than the silly superstitions of some members of the public.

    Stick to commenting about results from ATLAS and CMS, they are a much more enjoyable read.

    - IS

    You miss the point IMO. These charlatans should go to jail because they do not pay taxes. So stripping them of the money they earn in one year would be not only legitimate, but sound.

    I'm afraid that your comment is a bit of cop-out. Your issue seems to be with "charlatans", not with tax evasion. If your comment was about how tax evasion in Italy could fund many LHC projects per year, that would be fine. But you didn't say that - you used your post the give a backhand rebuke to people who use and provide the services of tarot card readings and other "silly" activities.

    If tax evasion in Italy is the issue you want to address, I am pretty sure we would not start with the tax loss on tarot card readings. Furthermore, many if not most of the people involved in tarot card readings etc are some of the poorest people in Europe - that's true for both the producers and the consumers. I am not sure that finding ways to tax poor people more heavily is the answer to anything, let alone scientific research.


    Dear IS,
    Tommaso doesn't need an attorney here, but I would like to better explain the meaning of what he wrote, given the context in which it is applied.

    These "Charlatans" of any kind operating in Italy and surely not paying taxes are just reported as a reference here.

    Just to start with, most of people in Italy are more sensitive to something that (at least) appears immediately profitable to them than the medium/long-range return offered by scientific research, with the general aim of "improving life" . That holds true even more widely speaking, such as arguing about the labour market, where the statement "improving quality" is often disregarded in Italy. Please note I haven't used the word "layman" here, we are not speaking about educational level, but simply inferring to the amount of people sharing this short-range perspective.

    Example giving and staying in-topic: my parents were wise enough to make me to attend university but, when my father notices me reading articles about the Higgs Boson, he's still asking me "Is that anything you can eat?" Well, my father is undoubtly a bright person, this is just a "mind habit".

    Then, there's a noteworthy consensus at least in reading horoscopes for better dealing with friends and colleagues, not to mention to ask other people for advices. I regret to see that indipendent thinking, self-awareness, not to mention personal improvement or scientific culture are not cared by the average person. In a way or another, this is part of the "mediterrean behaviour", a psycological attitude surely enriching emotional thought (and so unleashing greater creativity) but often at the expense of rationality. I'm sure you could hardly figure out anybody from Germany in such a mood, with related pros and cons.

    But - given the above said - if you are conceiving those "charlatans" as poor people, standing in the shoes of beggars or gipsies walking along the streets, you would be committing a great mistake! This "magicians" present themselves as professional consultants, offering "support services" mostly for the benefit of personal affairs but sometimes in the aid of the business too, relying in the obvious lack of self-confidence of their "customers". They wisely invest in the interior design of their "offices" and advertise their skills on TV and billboards!

    Anyway, even if I cannot justify such an exploitation of human naivety, it's such a shame to mention the (still current)spreading of this phenomenon (Eurispes confirms it), that makes me (and Tommaso) to state that those "professionals" should - at least - pay their taxes, given their commitment in building such a good business.

    In noting this, it becomes straightforward to say that the recovered amount of money (by taxation or diversion) would so huge that it could easily fund an outstanding and challenging project like LHC, that would (at least) compensate the waste of human potential of those individuals relying on fate (or simply on somebody else, making them always dependant on others) to better deal with their lives.


    Hello Alberto,

    The issue of Tommaso's post is how Italians spend huge amounts of money on “ridiculous” services such as tarot card readings and the like. What people spend their money on is their business - I think it is inappropriate to suggest that people should not be spending money on things they like because you don't like what they buy.

    Italians are people like everyone else – they are just human beings. Yes, there are cultural differences in the Mediterranean region, but humans everywhere feel much happier when they have choice in how to run their lives. The central issue in Tommaso's post is the tension that exists between removing some choice from people through the force of government to make the citizenry fund big science. While force must be used to accomplish this goal, there are excellent well found economic arguments why the gains from publicly funded big science outweigh the cost of reduced choice.

    The issue of “magicians” or people who offer services of questionable value, again that is not for you or me to decide. That transaction is a voluntary arrangement between two parties. Who are we to say that no benefit accrued (provided that there is no actual fraud)? I do not subscribe to the point of view that people are too stupid to make their own decisions about what makes them better off. They are smarter than you think.

    As for Italians having a short term mind set, that may be true, but I doubt it. Different people will discount future consumption differently, but we all discount it. After all, we might not be here tomorrow to enjoy future consumption possibilities. As long as people respond consistently to how much they enjoy present consumption relative to future consumption, they are completely rational. I don't think that Italians, on the whole, discount the future any more highly than any other Western country.

    The economic problems of the Mediterranean countries is government itself, not the people or the mind set. Government has gotten so large that special interest capture - whether by unions or well connected industrialists - has become the only real game in town to get ahead in life. Tax leakage is just a symptom of a much greater illness. Government red tape makes starting a business in Italy unbelievably difficult and it's sad. It condemns the poor to higher unemployment and, in the end, it makes funding big science more difficult as the economic pie is made smaller. Ultimately, government is about taking choices away from people, allegedly for the benefit of everyone, but it often ends up only benefiting the few. The Mediterranean countries have allowed government to destroy the future of an entire generation of young people. Singling out “charlatans” for tax leakage is not too different from certain European attitudes in the 1930s. God help us all if we return to that nonsense.

    Dear IS,
    your reply made me finally understand your main concern (and complaint) about Tommaso's post.

    He was right in replying to you with "you're missing the point", adding up that "those charlatans should go to jail... [or] .... be stripped off their earnings" (he said that not because he's illiberal, but because law is stating it); instead I would have better used the words "you missed my message here". But what was the message in his post? Let's point it out.

    I think the message is quite clear for most readers; it is stressed at the very beginning: "If you chance to take part in a conversation...". The remainder of the article, expressed in a very stylish language enriched by Dante's quotes, states that such a part could be very difficult in performing; even despite of the globally recognized importance of scientific research in a modern society.

    "Instead" he goes on - showing some statistical data pointing out large consensus in favor of an opposite trend - are reported on. As I said before, that was made purposefully for elaborating his concept: an interesting balance between “science” and “anti-science”. If he had really wanted to criticize or demonize the above said phenomenon, he could have argued about how some of those quacks, in the guise of “healers” (but law defines them “conmen”), could even get dangerous for their unaware customers’ health, just to gain some momentum. But you took his analysis to claim he was somehow implying it would have been “better” to convince people to “fix their odd behavior” and possibly “fund scientific research drawing earnings stripped off from charlatans” for the benefit of the former. Well, in truth he never spoke about that, he mentioned “stripping off” just in one reply, because you seemed not to understand that – for the latter - he was speaking about illegal activities, punishable by law.

    Moreover, he applied no judgement about the above said trend, i.e. in his post he makes statements consistent with reported data. The only occurence of the adjective "ridiculous" was in your reply; Tommaso spoke about a "ridiculous budget" , in a different context. And I may add up he was very politically correct, not reminding foreign readers of the recent cuts in LHC funding, just decided by the Italian government (immediately after the discovery of the Higgs, almost to mean that results don't even seem to matter, science is just a cost!). And if you think Italians to be so judicious, it's worth remembering that many skilled people had to move abroad in order to gain a fair chance to develop their full potential, given a widespread absence of sensitivity in the development of quality, innovation and research in their home country. Staying in the field of particle physics, do you recall of a guy called Enrico Fermi?

    Anyway, your main concern, very well argued in terms of economy and sociology, seems to be "the alleged attempt of imposing an overriding principle". In few words, you would be “scolding” Tommaso for saying what's "better" or "worse" to others. Let me say your criticism is undeserved by Tommaso Dorigo; you don't really know him.
    Not to mention that every scientist, especially an experimental physicist like Tommaso, is devoted to only one overriding principle: that there is no overriding principle. In other words, he is professionally compelled to keep an open mind on everything. Actually, you also suggested him to "stick to commenting about results from ATLAS and CMS": THAT could sound like you were imposing something onto him, in the same way you would warn him not to do. Tommaso can do what he thinks best.

    Going back to what I wrote to you (that you blatantly blamed), let me clarify I also didn't mention the attitude of “relying on charlatans” with the aim to denigrate "an irrational behavior". As I said, I was just trying to explain the original meaning of Tommaso's post.

    Please also note what other readers replied to this article: surely there was a lot of irony here, so we shouldn’t get really too serious. Otherwise, I dare you... I would be very delighted to see what you would answer to the guy who spoke about air conditioners for troops in Afghanistan in comparison to NASA budget!

    Instead, as you are clearly keen on economy and psychology, I would like to thank you for commenting on the "sovereign debt crisis" taking place in Europe; it's nice to know what is seen outside it. But as you seem to underestimate the power of a mind set (for instance you're still doubting italians to be using a short-term perspective) let me remind you that a particular mind set is not a consequence of living in a given area; the current mind set IS the sponsoring thought that creates the experience lived in that area. Comprehending this concept would prevent you to naively say "that the problem is the government and not people", forgetting that the “government” IS obviously made up by people. In other words, sooner or later what we think becomes what we create and then what we experience (as you show to be religious, you certainly know "thought- word-deed").
    Don't we like what we're experiencing? All we have to do is to start changing our mind set, so the real problem becomes to gain full awareness of it. Economy (a construct derived by our choices about money) is just an effect here, not a cause.

    But now I suppose we have gone too much far and off-topic … or maybe straight to the root of the idea that spawn this article.


    You could make a comparison to the SSC. For a marginally larger cost, the LHC has produced unique knowledge, whereas the SSC only produced a half-completed tunnel in the Texan desert and lots of frustrated people.

    Sure, the SSC was overly ambitious and signed off on by a president (Reagan) who loved basic research and Big Science too much to be objective.   But Tommaso's point is clear.

    If the NSF, for example, simply stopped wasting money and duplicating research, just that government group could have funded 5 LHCs in the time it took to build.  If it even stopped funding sociology nonsense like 'studies' of Farmville it would have paid for the LHC, and that is without dozens of other groups that waste that much or more. We have an entire section of the NIH devoted to trying to prove crackpot alternative medicine works.
    Amir D. Aczel
    One of my Italian physicist friends told me that when the faster-than-light neutrino news was first out, one of the cabinet ministers in Italy quickly made a public statement that her government paid for the digging of the tunnel between Geneva and Gran Sasso through which the neutrinos traveled!! This is real!!
    Amir D. Aczel
    FYI, her name is Mariastella Gelmini, and she was the Minister of Education ('s not a pun!)

    I find more effective pointing out that the entire LHC project in time will cost less than two aircraft carriers. Nimitz class cost 4.5 billion each,and the US has ten. An aircraft carrier is financed on the expectation of use in war and deterrent of wars, it can be sunk any time and the whole investment will become null, it does not stimulate technology etc. etc.

    If people mind where their tax money goes they should vote for less airplane carriers.