The subject of particle physics remains relatively blurry among the general population. The standard model was established back in 1970’s and it has flourished ever since , making the model very successful and it is the backbone of quantum field theory. The benefits from particle physics are immense and definitely deserve a great deal of recognition these days. What does it mean for the society that particle physics technology led to cutting edge and lifesaving medical treatments? Or the tires on our vehicles are cheaper, safer and greener because of the use of particle accelerator technology? Or that computer hardware and infrastructure are improving faster than they would otherwise?
What could a radial tire possibly have in common with particle physics? In accelerator technology physics, it boosts particles to nearly the speed of light; in industry, it’s used in creating materials that go into tires, and as a bonus, this avoids the use of solvents that can pollute the environment. The semiconductor industry relies on accelerator technology to implant ions in silicon chips , making them more effective in consumer electronics products, such as computers , cell phones, and MP3 players. Researchers used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory to develop Kaletra, one of the world”s most-prescribed drugs to fight AIDS. Artificial human joints such as those for hip, last longer when industry uses particle accelerators to implant ions and harden the metal material. Superconducting wire developed for particle accelerators made it possible to create powerful magnets for medical diagnostic tools such as magnetic resonance imaging ( MRI).
When it comes to getting rid of cancer, the sharpest scalpel may be a proton beam. Technology conceived and hatched in high energy physics is now treating thousands of patients per year, with fewer side effects. Studies have shown the effectiveness of proton therapy, especially where the tumors are very close to sensitive organs. Protons are good with large tumors that wrap around critical structures. It is a conformal treatment meaning the proton beam can be designed to match exactly the size and shape of the tumor, making it a customized treatment. Protons deposit most of their energy upon arrival at the tumor and thus minimizes the amount of damages being done to the surrounding healthy tissues.
Standard radiation treatment machines have to be replaced every seven to eight years and only operate one shift a day and treat one patient at a time. Proton therapy equipment is built to last 30 years and often feeds into three or more treatment rooms. Because proton therapy spares healthy tissue, doctors can give higher doses and increase the cure rate. These days carbon ions are being used for cancer treatments because they are heavier and deliver higher energy and therefore even more effective than proton treatments for certain type of cancers.
Stories abound about how particle physics benefits education, the economy, and society as a whole. Quantifying those benefits would help particle physics better demonstrate its value to the country. Some economic impacts are easy to quantify, such as dollars spent on payrolls and equipment, then there are the non-fiscal impacts that add social value, such as training teachers and maintaining open space. A direct line of descent between the basic research done at particle physics labs and things like the World Wide Web, MRI machines, cancer therapy, and superconductors are the stronger cases of economic impact that should be recognized in addition to the ripple effect that particle physics has on society. Warrenville and West Chicago will each soon be home to $200 million proton therapy treatment centers that together will care for 3000 cancer patients each year. The development of this technology is simply not possible without particle physics.
I have personally worked with many teachers from SLAC ( Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) through the professional development courses in particle physics where they learned how to bring hands-on lessons and inquiry-based learning practices into their high school classrooms. These teachers combine their teaching experience with SLAC’s expertise in particle physics to create a strong, ongoing program between their schools and SLAC. Better teachers improve schools and good school systems attract people to live in the area. Clearly the social benefit is significant here.
In general, the development of particle physics create jobs and support small businesses. It helped to develop cutting edge cancer therapies, medical diagnostic tools, and the World Wide Web. All of these add values to particle physics, but their benefits have never been properly assessed.