Where’s OUR Particle Accelerator?

Yesterday, the first particle beam was guided through the $8 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva.  In mid-October, the first particle beam collisions will be made, thus inaugurating the biggest, most expensive playground for particle physicists ever imagined.  I’ve been trying to figure out what political science equivalent would match the LHC in scale. 

The most obvious example might be the commissioning of our very own laboratory-state in which political scientists schedule time to come in and basically mess with a state’s government to see what happens when we enact small institutional or social changes.  Of course, without comparison, that might not be the most interesting political science sandbox we can imagine.  Perhaps we can expand into a whole international system of laboratory-states, then, where not only do the Comparativists have a shot at the fun, but the International Relations folks can conduct experiments and see what prods their lab-states into war.  The most obvious problem with this type of political science playground, though, is ethical, of course.  Physicists don’t really have to worry about their experiments violating anyone’s human rights when it plays around with subatomic particles, but political scientists can’t commission a lab-state to starve its citizens so we can see what happens.  There is also an undeniable question of scale here, as $8 billion doesn’t seem to stretch too far when we talk about polities and war.

Likewise, I probably wouldn’t get the funding or approval to do any real-life experiments that too closely approximate the substance of my dissertation–the use of violence by extremist factions.  However, abstract experimental methods are arguably gaining more ground in political science, and are more established in economics.

Though I haven’t seen this documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? tells the story of Jeff Smith, a political science Ph.D., from Washington University in St. Louis, and his run for the Democratic nomination for Dick Gephardt’s former House seat in 2004.  His primary run certainly wasn’t worth $8 billion, but it is potentially an interesting experiment that might give us some interesting insight into the role of money in American political campaigns.

So, if we had a shot at building some kind of dream laboratory in our academic discipline, what would it be?

One Reply to “Where’s OUR Particle Accelerator?”

  1. I believe one of the goals of the CERN project is to witness what it was like in the very beginning of the universe. A project like that in political science would be to see what it was like in the beginning as well, before government, in a Hobbes-like “State of Nature”. We would need to get a group of people together, put them in a simulated environment, and completely erase their memories. Like the CERN project, we would have a super microscope that monitors exactly what is going on- for us, this machine would tell us exactly why people make the decisions they do by monitoring physiological conditions (and of course, there will be doctors there to help us with this).
    Another reason this project will be like CERN is that it will allow us to explain a concept we cannot fully define yet; for CERN, it’s matter, for us, rationality.

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