The late Austrian-American physicist Victor Weisskopf described the grand particle accelerators that began to take shape around the world in the 1950s and 60s as the "gothic cathedrals of the 20th century". The comparison was apt. The medieval cathedrals pushed the limits of available technology, involved the craftsmanship of literally thousands of skilled workers, and took generations (and sometimes centuries) to complete. Modern particle accelerators require decades from conception to completion and involve thousands of scientists from scores of countries, speaking dozens of languages, whose separate handiwork must mesh together perfectly on the scale of thousandths of millimetres.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a prototypical example. It will be the most powerful particle accelerator ever constructed, the largest and most technologically sophisticated machine ever built, and one of the most challenging scientific endeavours humanity has yet undertaken.
Cathedrals were designed to celebrate the glory of God as manifested through the human spirit in words, music and art. The LHC has been engineered to celebrate and proclaim the glory of the natural world, and of our remarkable ability to comprehend it, as manifested through experimental science. It will probe the structure of matter on scales 10 billion times smaller than anything "nano", perhaps creating fleeting elementary particles that, since the big bang, have existed almost exclusively in the imagination of theoretical physicists. The issues it will seek to address range from the origin of mass to the origin of matter, unveiling the very fundamental symmetries that guide the structure and make-up of the natural world.
Weisskopf's comparison is also worth reflecting upon as we recall that gothic cathedrals, like their modern counterparts, strained the purse strings of the communities in which they were built. The LHC's cost will exceed $10bn (£5.1bn). In a practical world, particularly one in which government deficits and basic human needs abound, one may reasonably ask whether such public largesse can be afforded to such a minority of special interest: particle physicists.
One argument is that the cost of the LHC, built as part of an international collaboration over a decade, pales in comparison to the cost of other government outlays, including maintaining the war in Iraq for a few months. But it is disingenuous to compare apples and oranges. The real question is whether we as a culture can afford not to pursue the questions about the universe that have baffled us for millennia, especially now that we may have the capability to discern the answers.
Science is often celebrated as the source of technology, and the technological side benefits associated with building large accelerators have been pervasive, including development of large-scale parallel computing technology, and the development of the world wide web. But the greatest value of such scientific research may not be technological, but cultural.
Science, like great art, music or literature, compels us to reassess our place in the universe - to question where we come from, and where we are going. To turn our back on these questions is to dismiss our cultural inheritance. We should thus consider continuing our explorations of the universe as a cultural imperative.
When Robert Wilson, the first director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, was summoned before a US House of Representatives committee to justify the exorbitant cost of his accelerator, he was asked whether it would aid the defence of the nation. He answered, "It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending."
Students today may not study the plumbing of the ancient Greeks, but we hope they still marvel at the elegance of Plato and Socrates. When we think of the great civilisations that have come before us, we associate their greatness with the ideas that drove their culture forward. The LHC, and the discoveries it may make, will be a part of our legacy for future generations.
Will the LHC live up to our hopes for grand discoveries? No one knows. But even the worst case scenario will tell us that many of the remarkable ideas developed in physics over the past three decades - ideas that have inspired among the best and brightest young minds - may have to be supplanted by even more exciting ideas, yet to be born.
The effort to understand the natural world is not a humble enterprise, and neither should it be. It provides otherwise unimaginable insights that illuminate our brief existence here on this lonely planet.
The LHC is the next immodest step in the noble tradition of unlocking the mysteries of the heavens. That is its ultimate justification.