The recent news blitz over the first day of operation for the Large Hadron Collider got me thinking — what other fields have cool apex experiments? Seeing as how the term “apex experiment” is possibly one that I have invented myself, allow me to explain. An apex experiment is the most important, sought-after, envied, cool, world-changing, and often priciest, experiment in a given field. I’ve modeled this term after the term “apex predator” from ecology, which is a predator that is at the very top of the food chain in its environment (e.g. lions on the savanna, great white sharks in the sea, and eagles in the skies). So if you want to think of an apex experiment as capable of devouring all the rest of the experiments in its field, then that’s cool too.
Particle physics, then, has a really cool apex experiment: the supercollider. The latest supercollider, the Large Hadron Collider, is a behemoth 27 kilometers in circumference buried hundreds of feet in the ground that approaches nearly unimaginable energy levels. It will create hitherto unknown particles from the sheer energy released by the force of tremendous collisions. It’s harder to imagine a field with a better apex experiment, but I have one: rocket science. The apex experiment in rocketry in the 1960s, a manned mission to the Moon, was undeniably awesome, and the current apex experiment, a manned mission to Mars, is awe-inspiring for its sheer difficulty.
Now look at some other fields. Until very recently, the apex experiment in the field of genetics and bioinformatics was sequencing the human genome. Now that that’s been accomplished, the next lofty goal is to do so cheaply, so that it can be done on an individual basis as part of a routine medical diagnostic. A worthy goal, certainly, but it doesn’t have the same coolness factor as the LHC or the Apollo missions. Regrettably, there is no Giant Animal Smasher in biology, though the sheer amazingness of such an awesome contraption existing sends tingles down my spine (though perhaps PETA would have a different reaction).
How about some other fields? Astronomy has the Hubble Space Telescope (and coming soon, the James Webb Space Telescope). SETI has the Allen Array and the Arecibo dish, the latter of which also serves as an apex experiment in the field of radio astronomy. I couldn’t point to one particular example in computer science beyond the now-obsolete Deep Blue, but the ever ongoing race for the most powerful supercomputer serves in a pinch. Biology had the discovery of the form of DNA, though nowadays its apex experiment is probably along the lines of finding a cure for cancer (which is, admittedly, a lot less of a unified endeavor than we once believed). As for chemistry and engineering, nothing immediately jumps to the top of my mind, though I’m sure you readers will have some ideas in the comments below.
Apex experiments are so important because, in addition to giving all the other scientists in a field something to aspire to, they also draw the publics attention to the importance of science, and thus, keep critical science funding from drying up. An apex experiment is like a blockbuster movie: it creates an incredible buzz in mainstream society, and then hopefully while everyone is at the theater watching the movie, they’re also dropping some money on concessions.
Barring the Giant Animal Smasher becoming a reality, I would have to say that the Apollo missions were the apex of all apex experiments. No other singular human scientific endeavor has come close in terms of impact. Space exploration is uniquely captivating and world-changing, so here’s hoping that the next apex experiment in space exploration, journeying to Mars, is not too far off.