The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on the French-Swiss border has cost billions of dollars to build, but that's considered a small price to pay when probing the frontier of physics.
The 17-mile ring of super-cooled magnets accelerates particles close to the speed of light and collides them inside the most advanced particle detectors on the planet. This is all in an effort to find out why matter has mass and whether other scientific possibilities, such as microscopic black holes and dark matter, exist.
One of the detectors used in the LHC is ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) that is, amongst other things, looking for the origin of mass in the form of the mysterious particle known as the Higgs boson.
ATLAS measures collisions between very fast moving protons. When these protons collide they create short-lived particles that ATLAS is designed to track in search of the Higgs.
It's impossible to say what developments will come from the LHC, but it has a good chance of making a huge impact because the things LHC scientists are studying are forces that surround us and permeate all matter. "There is every chance the information we get will turn out to be useful," says Jon Butterworth, a researcher working with ATLAS.
Science can be a bit of a guessing game when it comes to predicting the applications from experimental physics. Butterworth brings up something 19th century physicist Michael Faraday said about the practical application of his work: he had no idea what use it was, but bet the politicians would be able to tax it someday.
Brian Cox, another ATLAS physicist, said in an interview with BBC Newsnight in 2008, "This is part of a journey we've been on for about a hundred years, trying to find the building blocks of matter and the forces that stick them together. This journey has given us, for example, the transistor, the silicon chip, it has given us cures for certain cancers, there's an endless list."
NASA has had similar breakthroughs, creating the technology for telecommunications, memory foam, water filters, and cordless power tools. It's impossible to say what the developments will come from advanced research.
Scientifically, the Higgs field is best explained with an illustration created by David Miller from University College London. Using the analogy of a room full of politicians, Miller describes these politicians as being uniformly distributed through the room. When the Prime Minister enters, the politicians crowded around her. When the Prime Minister is close to them they crowed closer, effectively giving her more mass and momentum. As she moves away, they return to their original position. The Prime Minister in this example would represent a particle moving through space with the politicians being the Higgs field that gives the particle mass.
The Higgs boson would be seen in this experiment if a rumor started in one corner of the room and moved through the room in clusters of politicians, creating mass as it moved. The Higgs boson is predicted to be that cluster of mass.
Butterworth speculates that discovering the origin of mass could help us better harness the power of the sun. He explains, "The weak force, which is weak because of the mass of the W and Z bosons which carry it, makes the sun work. If we understand how the W and Z bosons get that mass, maybe we can work out better ways to manipulate the power source of the sun." That kind of application is incredibly complicated and would have to be decades away he adds.
The power of the sun that Butterworth refers to is fusion power. Fusion power could be the secret to replacing carbon-based fuels and is safer than the nuclear fission technology used today.
There is no chance for a chain reaction as seen in disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Fusion reactions would die very quickly in the case of an accident because they are difficult to maintain in the first place. Their byproducts also aren't usable in creating nuclear weapons.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France is working on solving energy problems with research into fusion power.
A major problem in fusion is the high temperatures created by such strong nuclear reactions. "One of the latest spin-offs from CERN is actually the ability to cool the thing down," Cox points out.
The cooling system that is used at CERN is now being adapted to nuclear fusion research. ITER aims to have their prototype fusion reactor putting power into the grid by 2040.
The bottom line is that these experiments could be rewriting science textbooks and revolutionizing experimental physics. The LHC is creating particle collisions stronger than ever before seen, so the short-term rewards are just going to have to go to the scientists working on answering the questions of other dimensions, dark matter, and the origin of mass.