Of Particular Significance

The Hunger for Power: Geopolitics and Particle Physics

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 09/06/2022

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine (I will not call it a “war,” as that might offend Czar Vlad and his friends) for the nth time, my thoughts turned to the consequences for the CERN laboratory and for upcoming research at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].   It was clear that Putin would blackmail Europe using his oil and gas supplies, leading to a spike in energy prices and a corresponding spike in CERN’s budget.

Of course I didn’t foresee the heat waves and drought that have swept Europe, or the maintenance problems at France’s nuclear plants, which have made the energy crisis that much worse.  (Even though global climate change is now quite obvious, and the trends are partially predictable, one can’t predict what will happen in any given year.)  I am not familiar with the budgetary consequences of these higher energy prices for CERN operations, but they cannot be good.

Now comes word via the Wall Street Journal that power shortages, rather than mere budget considerations, may require CERN to cut back its substantial energy usage, in order to stabilize the power grid.  The LHC, which just restarted in July after a couple of years of upgrades, is the largest power consumer at the CERN lab. Much of that power is used to keep the giant machine extremely cold so that its powerful magnets can function.  It takes many weeks to cool the accelerator down to 1.9 degrees above absolute zero (i.e. a bit colder than the temperatures found in deep space, far from any stars) so one can’t just flip the LHC on and off like a light switch.  Clearly CERN will try first to curtail other operations in times of a power crunch and keep the LHC cold, so as not to have to shut it down for months at a time.  But I would not be surprised if this year’s LHC run is somewhat curtailed, for one or another reason.

That’s too bad, but it’s just the way it is.  We have far bigger problems at a time of war (oops, I wasn’t going to call it that…)  And we are fortunate that, in contrast to the 1930s, when the ill-timed discovery of the neutron coincided with Hitler’s rise to dictatorship and led to a rapid nuclear arms race, ongoing particle physics research focuses on much less dangerous questions — despite what the current ridiculous conspiracy theories about CERN may claim.  I am grateful that, unlike our ancestors a couple of generations back, we particle physicists do not currently face the risk of putting new, catastrophic power in the hands of power-hungry, blood-thirsty autocrats.  (No, Vlad, of course I don’t mean anyone in particular; and besides, you already can destroy entire continents of people if you feel like it.)

CERN was intended as a peace project: a pan-Western-European organization, founded after a time of war that had torn the continent apart.  In its convention, it is stated that “The Organization shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available.”  After the end of the Cold War, it further expanded to the rest of the continent and even beyond.  It is not yet seriously wounded by this new period of conflict in Europe. But like everyone else from Vladivostok to Lisbon, it feels the pain.

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20 Responses

  1. Before cutting CERN out, European authorities should cut out ski resorts which are huge consumers of power… to make artifical snow. Of course elected oligarchs will pontificate that millions live of, and from, and for, skiing on artificial snow. Let ski resorts use the renwable resources at their disposal! (Some do.)

    We have to modify human behavior (say not eating lobsters until lobster procurement changes, because present lobster fishing kills into extermination Right Whales; or have Australians, Canadians and Americans reduce their CO2 emissions by 75%, to reach French or Swiss, and world average, levels of CO2 emissions… 4 tons of CO2 per person, per year… instead of the 20+ tons Australians are presently enjoying… and that doesn’t count all the coal they sell all over…)

    2) we have to research, develop, deploy and use more advanced technology

    We have to GROW mentally and energetically out of the problematic we are in. Cognitively, scientifically, technologically… Financing science, any science, is part of the solution. Present difficulties are from a lack of science, and, or lack of smarts (betting on the long tradition of Kremlin, or Chinese, dictatorships.) Developing science helps to develop smarts.

    We have to progress towards a more scientific, more technological, more deliberate world. And debating the problems at hand, or over the horizon, is crucial, because only that way will the best solutions be found. Scientist have been derelict in evaluating the dangers we are in, and the solutions we urgently need to get out of our 84% dependency upon fossil fuels for primary energy (for example hydrogen and small batteries, instead of giant batteries and no hydrogen).

  2. Science, the day after: “Europe’s energy crisis hits science
    Supercomputing and accelerator centers struggle with surging gas and electricity prices”.

    CERN and LOFAR (and other basic science operations) is mentioned, but it is the social concerns that spring to the (or my) fore.

    “The primary cause of the crisis is a rebound from an economic slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Power generators that had been shut down could not ramp up in time to meet renewed demand, says Jonathan Stern, who studies natural gas at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February worsened the situation. Both European sanctions and Russian retaliation crimped supplies of Russian natural gas, which powers electric generators and heats buildings, pushing continental European gas prices to more than 10 times their average historical values.

    Early science casualties came in January, even before the Ukraine war, …”.

    “… delays for the 1500 users who used it for climate modeling and drug discovery …”.

    “During the pandemic, vaccinemaker BioNTech used DESY’s x-ray facilities to reveal the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how it uses its surface protein, spike, to dock on human cells. Other DESY researchers study materials used in solar panels and batteries. “It will have ramifications for slowing down innovations, right at the moment when we need them the most,” Leemans says.”

    “He gives the example of accelerators at Birmingham that produce isotopes used in medical imaging—programs that would either need to be suspended, run at a loss, or run with their costs passed down to local hospitals.”

    1. IIRC UN estimates we have lost 5 years of progress already. And as always it is the poor and the now many climate migrants (Pakistan, right now, say – 1/3 of the nation is under water) that are hit hardest. 😭

  3. I worry that humanity is demonstrating an explanation of the Fermi Paradox. As things stand, I don’t foresee us getting to the stars. I’d happily be wrong about this.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog for quite a few years now. Nice to see the new look!

      1. In Maschine language the ability to “arithmetize” the statement set the stage for the coup (trippy).
        Tree (anti-gravity) created the Monkey metamathematically, Monkey create mathematically the Engineering, and metamathematically the gravity, where the Tree prevail?

        You might think you could just posit some extra axiom, use it to prove G, and resolve the #Paradox. But you can’t. Gödel showed that the augmented axiomatic system will allow the construction of a new, true formula Gʹ (according to a similar blueprint as before) that can’t be proved within the new, augmented system. In striving for a complete mathematical system, you can never catch your own tail.


        1. Can G be proved? If so, this would mean there’s some sequence of formulas that proves the formula with Gödel number sub(n, n, 17). But that’s the opposite of G, which says no such proof exists. Opposite statements, G (gravity or singularity in black hole) and ~G (anti-gravity or no expansion in dark-energy star), can’t both be true in a consistent axiomatic system. So the truth of G must be undecidable.
          However, although G is undecidable, it’s clearly true (Tree prevail?, #Rest-mass is not a physical reality, time dilation or momentum is physical reality),.. or a Paradox?

  4. The largest absurdity in the world, is the largest accelerator in the world, that consumes equal to a small town, not having proper light generator, that is, the largest machine in the world, the most expensive on the planet in dozen billion, dont even owning a own light generator. If that were in Russia or Bangladesh, it would be the biggest joke in the world. I don’t want to believe in this extreme stupidity. Forgive me for my insurgence. That is unbelievable.

    1. I think your reaction is a bit over the top. A 200 MW power plant is an investment of 200-300 million euros at least, not counting the land, the electrical lines, the cost of the fuel and the salaries of the people to run and maintain the plant. It’s a cost-benefit analysis question: is it cheaper and more efficient to buy the electricity from a large, off-site power provider, or to build your own from scratch? I’m sure that analysis was done by CERN, since power is a non-negligible part of the budget. Maybe they made the wrong choice; but such choices are made based on certain assumptions and educated guesses, many of which may be upended by the current crisis.

  5. Seems you are ignoring the causality of the energy prices rise. The energy prices started rice half year before Putin invaded Ukraine, so the invasion cannot be the cause of the prices rise (while it may worse it a bit). The actual cause are nonsensical EU Allowances (currently they form one half of the electric power price), switching off stable power sources while nonsensically supporting building of the unstable once, purely ideological ban on exploitation of gas sources in Europe (Europe has enough gas sources to be independent on import) and other nonsensical EU policies. Unfortunately the war is used as the excuse for the prices rise and EU persists the damaging policies.

    1. To some extent you are probably correct, and to some extent you are probably not; it’s a matter of opinion because we cannot do the experiment. What happens in wartime is that problems that would otherwise be solved by market forces or by public action cannot be solved because security considerations dominate everything else. Because Putin and Europe have declared economic war on one another, capital markets and commodity flows are badly disrupted by political activity, and this prevents prices from reverting to reasonable values. So while it’s true that there are multiple forces driving prices, in my opinion the war is the main cause of instability and uncertainty, which keeps prices from settling down. I can’t prove my opinion is correct, nor can you prove yours correct; that’s the way it is in geopolitical/economic affairs.

      1. Geo-Political itself a Phonon factor, very localized and Universally not compatible, also easy like a simple, closed-form solution for sound wave (sound source localization).

    2. “The energy prices started rice half year before Putin invaded Ukraine, so the invasion cannot be the cause of the prices rise”

      Not the sole cause. But it isn’t for just one reason.

      “The actual cause are nonsensical EU Allowances”

      They are beginning to take climate change seriously, and this is a first small step at responding to it. Of course to climate change deniers it would be nonsensical.

      “nonsensically supporting building of the unstable once,”

      Well see, if you get shortages of reliable energy sources, then you can fill in with unreliable ones and use the reliable ones to fill in the cracks. You’ll have more energy. But only if you have already built the unreliable ones. Europe depends critically for fossil fuel on Russia and the USA, two nations with fantasies of global empire, neither of them reliable sources. Europe needs desperately to diversify, preferably with energy sources that don’t depend on transport through the empire-controlled Atlantic Ocean, or through the east.

      “purely ideological ban on exploitation of gas sources in Europe”

      The longer they put off using those, the more valuable they’ll get. Assuming they ever do get exploited. Assuming europe doesn’t get controlled by somebody else who exploits european gas for their own needs.

      The USA has always followed a policy of Burn America First, using up US resources quickly in the hope that by the time they’re in short supply the USA can dependably exploit those resources from elsewhere. That’s plausible for the USA. The #1 nation for official oil reserves today is Venezuela, which is firmly in the US sphere of influence. The #2 source is Saudi Arabia which has much less remaining reserves than claimed, though there’s no consensus how MUCH less. The third is Canada, a relatively low-population nation with essentially no defenses that shares a border with the US. The USA can take that oil whenever they need it. Europe’s situation is nothing like that.

      Europe desperately needs a plan for medium-run survival. Keeping energy prices low in the short run instead, would be suicidal. But maybe they will have enough desperate voters that they will give up planning for the future.

    3. Putin intended to invade, so he prevented Europe to constitute full storage of gas in summer 2021, Thus energy prices rose and were a signal of the upcoming Putin invasion. The EU understand this now, and has constituted nearly enough storage for the coming winter from other sources (Germany is above 80% and France above 90%).

  6. Physics should unite people. It is a tiny glimpse of the ultimate truth – not my truth, your truth, or their truth.

    1. One of the great pleasures of being a physicist has been doing research with people from so many different countries and cultures, all working toward the same goal: deeper knowledge and appreciation of the grand universe that we are a part of. But we must also remember how quickly that common effort broke down after 1938 or so.

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