Nothing other than just understanding everything

One of the most brilliant moments of Particle Fever is when, during a Q&A, physicist David Kaplan is asked about the potential economic return of the (at the time forthcoming) experiments at the LHC. He gives the following answer–which I will no doubt try to adapt when in the future someone asks me something similar related to literature… (although I assume that, not being a physicist myself, I shouldn’t expect the same applause in return.)

Question: Let’s assume you’re successful and everything comes out okay. What do we gain from it? What’s the economic return? How do you justify all this? By the way, I am an economist…

Answer: The question by an economist was, “What is the financial gain of running an experiment like this and the discoveries that we will make in this experiment?” And it’s a very, very simple answer: I have no idea! We have no idea. When radio waves were discovered, they weren’t called radio waves, because there were no radios. They were discovered as some sort of radiation. Basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you’re not asking, “What is the economic gain?” You’re asking, “What do we not know, and where can we make progress?” So what is the LHC good for? Could be nothing other than just understanding everything.