Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Diamonds in the Data

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Diamonds in the Data

Article excerpt

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is back. If you foresee "been there, done that" ennui, don't let it ruin the moment. After all, we didn't know that we craved insights into the Higgs boson until researchers found it.

It's likely that the newly upgraded collider will give us something else we didn't know we wanted. This is a long-established pattern for innovation. We have recently learned, for instance, that Google Images was conceived in order to find pictures of Jennifer Lopez. It is somehow disappointing but not surprising: we already knew that the creators of YouTube were searching for a way to view Janet Jackson's accidentally exposed nipple.

So, it's a good time to be reminded that our higher purposes can also bear fruit. The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) has discovered a glittering array of subatomic particles but it also gave us the internet. And that's not all: other Cern spin-offs include cancer therapies, new medical imaging technologies, touch screens and major improvements to solar panels.

The next unsought spin-off is likely to be in data processing. As boring as it sounds, this will almost certainly be the key to every innovation over the next 50 years. Learning to sift data whether presented in pictures, strings of numbers, or words will be vital for breaking through the information fog of the 21st century.

Cern is about to become very good at mining data for insight. In the new runs of the LHC, there will be a billion collisions per second. The subsequent events--involving particle characteristics, trajectories, lifetimes, and so on--are what enable Cern's scientists to find the physics answers they want, but the volume of information is overwhelming. Most of the collisions will produce nothing of interest, with only a few hundred per second worth tracking. Those are selected using complex and subtle algorithms; data from the rest is discarded. …

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