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Where are we headed?

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With personal and government budgets enduring extraordinary strains, should we continue spending so much money on certain areas of scientific research?

Advancing studies that may lead to a cure for cancer or an HIV vaccine obviously makes sense. Any positive results will offer great benefits to many Americans now and into the future.

But some segments of the scientific community seem to exist for their own sake with few apparent practical applications. Enormous sums of money are spent on these disciplines with no major problems solved. They just lead to more questions that need further research requiring additional revenue.

This is a view that many people have adopted, and it’s not unreasonable for them to ask such questions. As the taxpayers who provide the necessary funding, they want to know what they’re getting for the money being spent.

Clarkson University in Potsdam hosted a presentation Friday by William H. Goldstein, deputy director for science and technology at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., titled “Does Physics Still Matter?” The lecture was part of Clarkson’s New Horizons in Engineering Distinguished Lectureship series, with the goal of improving understanding of important issues facing engineering and society.

Mr. Goldstein discussed the importance of research in his area of specialty, analyzing the scientific aspects of weapons of mass destruction and other potential national security threats. Who can argue against our nation’s need to maintain both a scientific and technological edge over our adversaries who seek WMDs?

“Many of those problems, in particular in nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, involve very hard detection problems — the problem of detecting very, very small signals in very, very complex backgrounds,” Mr. Goldstein said during his presentation. “Typically, the things that you’re looking for are almost invisible. You’re looking for them in environments that are tremendously cluttered. This problem generically is very much the same as is faced in experimental physics, where smaller and smaller signals, weaker and weaker interactions are being looked for in huge, huge amounts of data that are produced for example in the very, very dirty collisions that take place in particle colliders.”

Mr. Goldstein referenced the attention recently given to particle physicists who won a Nobel Prize for discovering what they believe is the Higgs boson. This subatomic particle, which has been the subject of intense research for several decades, would help explain a missing part of the Standard Model of the electromagnetic, strong and weak forces of the universe.

Yes, identifying the Higgs boson will lead to a whole new list of problems to be studied. The question for the average person remains, “What’s in it for me?”

Developing the technology to conduct these kinds of experiments often has practical uses. Magnetic resonance imaging machines were vastly improved — and made more affordable — as a result of research in particle physics.

And increasing our knowledge of everything around us is always worthwhile. We never know what we’ll learn about the universe or how this information will benefit us unless we keep digging for answers.

It’s wonderful that Clarkson offers programs seeking to address these fundamental questions. Because only by discussing these issues can we appreciate the value of scientific research, the engineering behind it and how it improves our lives.

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