Higgs discovery confirms the importance of engineering

Features editor

On the whole, I’d rather be at Westminster Central Hall. Like many nerds — a label I’ll gladly embrace — I have an abiding interest in quantum physics, and the Central Hall opposite Parliament is where the most exciting discovery in a generation, confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson and the completion of the Standard Model of particle physics, is being announced.

It’s a triumph for engineering as well, although it almost certainly won’t be treated as such. The Large Hadron Collider and its four detectors are the most complex machines in the world; the collider a 27km ring of magnets, chillers, pumps, and optics which marshalls enormous forces to accelerate among the smallest entities in the universe to almost the speed of light; the detectors massive constructions involving materials such as steel, brass from old shell cases, foils of precious metals and crystals clearer than glass but heavier than lead, in caverns under the mountains large enough to swallow a gothic cathedral whole, all dedicated to recreating the conditions that existed for the smallest fraction of a second, over fourteen billion years ago.

And machinery is, of course, the preserve of engineers. When I visisted CERN a few years back, the researchers there were only too pleased to acknowledge the contribution of engineering towards their experiments. In fact, they seemed rather pleased to be asked about what the instruments they were working on were, how they worked, and how they’d been put together, as well as what they hoped to find with them.

The CMS detector at CERN, which has reported the discovery of the Higgs boson

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Edge of Physics, by Anil Ananthaswamy, which purports to be about research into dark matter, dark energy, the curvature of space-time and the subatomic world. In fact, it’s mostly about engineering: how to make a perfect 8m mirror and transport it to the top of a remote mountain; how to how to turn crystalline freshwater lakes and a cubic kilometre of ice at the South Pole into neutrino telescopes; how to build an array of radio telescopes in an enormous area of dry scrubland in South Africa. The technology of science depends on engineers; we wouldn’t know most of what we know without them.

Meanwhile, the Royal Academy of Engineering has been handing out its annual awards, also to engineers, recognising more down-to-Earth technology. Its highest prize, the MacRobert Award, went to the team that has designed and built the Range Rover Evoque, which has created jobs at home and sold in the millions abroad. Its highest individual prize, the Prince Phillip Medal, went to Naeem Hussain, a self-effacing civil engineer/architect who has designed some of the world’s most iconic modern bridges, including Stonecutters in Hong Kong and the new Forth Crossing, soon to take shape in Scotland.

Next month, meanwhile, the attention of nerds worldwide will switch from the man-made caverns below Geneva to a small red dot in the night sky, when the Mars Curiosity Rover, the largest and most complex robotic device to ever leave this planet, hopefully touches down after a nerve-racking six minute descent. Once again, it’s engineers who have made this possible.

People sometimes say that engineering’s biggest problem is that it’s perceived as boring. Boring? It’s helping us explore the Solar System, the atomic world, to probe back to the beginnings of time itself, and it builds the flash car that everyone aspires to drive across bridges that join, and even symbolise, nations. How much more excitement could you want?