Physics and astronomy: worth billions?

[caption id="attachment_1300" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Credit: CERN"][/caption]

As folk at CERN prepare not to announce the discovery of the Higgs boson (apparently), other folk have been discussing whether it's worth the money.

On the Today Programme, Lucie Green and Adam Rutherford discuss the cost of figuring out how the universe works, making the assumption (understandably) that for some reason we actually want to understand how the universe works.

Meanwhile, on the Guardian website, Jon Butterworth seems to argue that this kind of research is valuable because the technology of the future will be built on the fundamental physics of today, and because if we are good at solving this kind of question (such as whether the Higgs boson exists), we will probably be not too bad at solving other (more useful) questions.

But if you leave the economic, technological and societal spin-offs to one side (and factor that into the cost), is there any value in simply knowing stuff about the universe, such as what we are made of, how big the universe is, and how we got here?

Surely the answer to that must be "yes". Tell anyone that you are doing research in astronomy, and they find it fascinating. (In my experience, they then go on to tell you about some recent discovery that you knew nothing about, which is always slightly embarrassing!) Research into fundamental questions about the universe really does make a positive difference to people's lives.

But how does this happen? How exactly will my specific piece of research enrich people's lives? And how do we figure out how much new research we need? Do we even need any new research, or do we know more than enough already?

Answers appreciated!

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