What is the Large Hadron Collider really good for?
November 10, 2008 10:34 PM   Subscribe

Will there be any real world, practical applications from what will be learned with the Large Hadron Collider?

I have only a layman's-at-best knowledge of the LHC and quantum physics. I understand that the LHC is the darling of theoretical physicists, but what industry or product or...things will come of it? Are the discoveries made at the LHC (once they get it going again) going to blow only the minds of the brains who work in the field, or will there be "shiny objects", so to speak, that will stop the rest of us in our tracks, too?

For us non-scientists, it's all well and good to hear the brains say "We did it, we found the Higgs boson! E=mc2 and z=i/sqrt(a2+b2)]!" and so on. I can understand the concept of a new paradigm in physics, but I don't know what that would translate to for the average person.

Science fiction-y speculation welcomed.
posted by zardoz to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am a scientist but not a physicist. With my understanding of the LHC, I don't think there will be any "real world, practical applications" from discovering new particles. Although physicists might argue that a new particle is about as real world as you can get...
posted by stevechemist at 10:46 PM on November 10, 2008

It's actually hard to say exactly what the applications will be. A significant part of the LHC mission is to cast out the nets and see what the universe throws our way. I think its safe to say that ANYTHING we learn from it about how the universe works and what it's made up of will eventually profoundly affect our lives through technology.

Let me put it this way - can you think of any major advances in our knowledge of physics older than 50 years that has not led to major technological advances? I can't really (the 50 year latency is because it sometimes takes a while for an application to be found).

Aside from discoveries made directly by the detectors and physicists of the LHC, the monumental act of building such a gargantuan physics device unavoidably increases the technical knowhow of humanity. It has doubtless improved manufacturing processes for superconductors, led to advances in particle detectors, improved techniques for particle accelerator etc, etc.

Even if for some bizarre reason a major discovery in physics from the LHC doesn't result in new technology, I'm happy.

I guess that isn't a really satisfying answer - I'll get back to you if I think of a possible example of a discovery and where it might lead in terms of technology.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 11:00 PM on November 10, 2008

If we find proof of the Higgs Boson, then that's the first step to understanding how to manipulate the mass of objects. If we can ever find a way to manipulate an objects mass, it'll be a huge technological innovation that'll help us figure out new propulsion methods, altering gravity, and new amazing materials.

Those are the sci-fi future applications, of course.
posted by lockle at 11:14 PM on November 10, 2008

Relevant previous question.
posted by epugachev at 11:21 PM on November 10, 2008

I am a big science buff (science would have been a career but i cant do high end math).

All physics helps us know how the universe works. The lhc will allow us to find out more about how it works.

This will eventually trickle down to computers and things like that. It wont help initially but down the road.

One big example is Fiber optics. Scientists learning how light behaves has led to fiber optics being developed and expanded upon.
posted by majortom1981 at 5:20 AM on November 11, 2008

Lockle, I see you've played Mass Effect.

Yeah, I was about to come in here and say "Faster than light travel" but you basically beat me to it.
posted by Oktober at 7:07 AM on November 11, 2008

majortom and Salvor Hardin have got it. The thing about science and maths in general is that you can't pick and choose only the bits that seem to be useful. The LHC is a major part of modern theoretical physics, which adds to the scientific body of knowledge. And this knowledge, collectively, provides the background for new discoveries.

So when a materials scientist discoves a new structure which can be used in displays, or a smaller style of transistor, or a way of making high-capacity SSDs, their work is based on the knowledge collected by other scientists.

And (very) often, the most abstract areas are repurposed for practical applications later. Groups were discovered when studying the roots of polynomials. Now they're used to understand symmetries of molecules in chemistry.
posted by katrielalex at 7:09 AM on November 11, 2008

Robert Laughlin's A Different Universe is a very nice discussion of the relationship between the behavior of high-energy particles and the behavior of blocks of room-temperature stuff. The connection is much, much richer than I had thought. Maybe that's why Laughlin has a Nobel Prize and I don't.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:15 AM on November 11, 2008

"Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it." - Richard Feynman.

The other thing I'd add is the computer science that has to be developed for it. 27 terabytes of data will fall out of those particle detectors a day, and it has to be sorted and filtered down ultimately to one bit of data signifying the true/false answer to the question "Have we found the Higgs?"

Historically, particle accelerators have found alternative purposes as synchrotron radiation sources. Diamond is an example of what is basically a specially designed particle accelerator with uses outside particle physics.
posted by edd at 9:59 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

This question pops up all the time, and I just don't understand it. Nobody knows what we'll learn; we haven't learned it yet. If we already knew what we'd find out, we wouldn't bother looking.

You're essentially asking scientists to justify their research by predicting the future, and I'm afraid you simply won't get a "right" answer. Instead, you'll get the kind of answer that people put on grant applications. Who on earth would have predicted that the main benefit of the Apollo program would be Velcro? (I kid.)
posted by dsword at 1:42 PM on November 11, 2008

posted by jofuu at 6:16 AM on November 13, 2008

jofuu, bananas have antimatter.

CERN (the laboratory where the LHC tunnel sits) does have several programs that take advantage of their unique capacity to make lots of antiprotons. In particular, at CERN it's possible to make antiprotons, cool them, and put them in a bottle, where they have made antihydrogen atoms with antielectrons.

Once the antiprotons are cold, they're actually pretty easy to trap; one group (one of these, but I don't remember which) has a desk-sized wheeled cart with all the vacuum, magnet, power supply, and cryogenics for the antiproton trap. My advisor told me that some time ago there was a suggestion to fill the cart with antimatter and take it to some festival somewhere in Europe: the draw would be "more antimatter concentrated here than anywhere else in the universe since the big bang!"

Isn't that dangerous? The total would have been maybe 105 antiprotons. If the vacuum had failed, these protons would have released about 10-5 joules of heat in various sorts of radiation, much of which wouldn't get out of the vacuum chamber. A regular light bulb puts out this much heat in ten milliseconds. My advisor's question, when he heard about this idea, was "what would you do if the vacuum failed?" The answer, from his friend who was involved, was "probably we wouldn't tell anybody."
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:01 AM on November 15, 2008

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