Hunt For Fundamental Particles
Why do scientists continue to look for the
smallest components of matter?
You pose a very good question. I suppose underlying it all is the
inborn human quest for understanding. That theme is not only in the
sciences; you see it repeated in art, music, literature and all
human endeavor that embraces the big picture. It comes from the
innate desire to know where we came from, where we are, and where we
are going. It is a most noble enterprise. Those scientists who are
involved with basic research, such as the subatomic particles of
which you spoke, are explorers in the same sense as those who
explored the globe centuries ago.
On a more tangible level, basic research opens doors to other
fields, many not directly related. Life science and medicine,
particularly cancer research, have benefited tremendously from the
efforts of particle physicists. Materials science that can be
applied in many disciplines, and industrial and defense applications
are beneficiaries of the stops made along the way through basic research.
Today, cosmologists (scientists who study the origin and evolution
of the universe) are teaming up with particle physicists to try to
understand the very beginnings of space and time. The more closely
we look at the structure of matter, the more we are actually looking
back into time toward the conception of the universe. This is truly
If you would like more information, check out Fermilab's web site at
You may want to make a trip to
the Chicago area and take their tour!
hope this helps.
This is a very "fair" question, since the search almost always means
investing physical resources and money. The "answer" is that
scientists want to understand "How the Universe -- whether on its
largest scale or its smallest scale, and everywhere in between --
works." This is important for reasons that have no simple easy
answers. If you look back on the history of scientific discovery, it
frequently (maybe almost always) began as an intellectual challenge.
Only looking back are the "reasons" clear, and the practical
benefits obvious. Think for a moment that 100 years ago (in terms of
history that is not very long ago) not only did humans not fly, they
had a difficult time moving around on land. Now not only have we
made it to the Moon, but think of all the spin-offs that we take for
granted -- cell phones, calculators, computers -- the list goes on
and on. The search for knowledge, whether the smallest or the
largest has never failed to payoff in terms of practical inventions,
but we never know beforehand what those benefits might be.
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Update: June 2012