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Name: Clarice
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Question:
Why do scientists continue to look for the smallest components of matter?



Replies:
Hi Clarice

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 exciting stuff!

If you would like more information, check out Fermilab's web site at

http://www.fnal.gov>www.fnal.gov.

You may want to make a trip to the Chicago area and take their tour!

hope this helps.

Bob Froehlich


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.

Vince Calder



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