Sign up ×
Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free.

What practical application can we expect from particle physics a century or two from now? What use can we make of quark-gluon plasmas or strange quarks? How can we harness W- and Z-bosons or the Higgs boson? Nuclear physics has given us nuclear plants and the promise of fusion power in the near future. What about particle physics? If we extend our timeframe, what promise does string theory give us? Can we make use of black holes?

share|cite|improve this question

closed as not constructive by Sklivvz, dmckee Dec 23 '12 at 20:34

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

A similar question was raised a while ago, in – anna v Mar 27 '11 at 15:52
Allow me to add a somewhat cheeky quote attributed to Richard Feynman: "Physics is like sex. Sometimes, something useful comes out of it, but that's not the main reason we do it". – Lagerbaer Mar 27 '11 at 16:16
In order for there to be a practical application, wouldn't any new theories / particles have to have a measurable effect at a useful scale (mass, speed, energy level that we can use). If there were measurable effects at useful scales, we would already have experimental measurements that cannot be explained by current physics. Unfortunately (as I understand it) all of the unexplained measurements (that lead us to dark matter, etc.) operate at scales that aren't currently practical. – David Rouse Mar 28 '11 at 21:04
@David Rouse Starting from nuclear physics this is not valid. Nuclear stuff is hardly measurable in real life and not measurable at all with pre-XX century tools. However, it allows for rather effective demonstration. – Misha Aug 28 '11 at 6:41
Muon tomography exists today: it's used in archaeology in addition to to the security applications hinted at in the linked article. – Jerry Schirmer Oct 2 '11 at 20:18

8 Answers 8

Allow me to answer your question with some quotes:

  • "The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine." —Ernst Rutherford

  • "There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean the atom would have to be shattered at will." —Albert Einstein

  • "There is no likelihood that man can ever tap the power of the atom. The glib supposition of utilizing atomic energy when our coal has run out is a completely unscientific Utopian dream, a childish bug-a-boo." —Robert Millikan

  • "Radio has no future." —Lord Kelvin

  • "The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals." —Albert. A. Michelson, 1894

  • "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." —Lord Kelvin, 1900

Also, I couldn't find a good quote for this one, but it was widely believed that number theory was an abstract mathematical discipline with no practical application. Now it is the basis of all modern cryptography.

Basically the idea I'm trying to get across is that it's impossible to predict the future applications of basic research.

share|cite|improve this answer
That Kelvin guys seems like a bad predictor ;-) – Ivo Flipse Mar 27 '11 at 21:11
He also said "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" and "X-rays will prove to be a hoax". =P – Keenan Pepper Mar 28 '11 at 9:19 – Dan Brumleve May 30 '11 at 22:55
@KeenanPepper - I don't know so much about "impossible to predict" so much as "very difficult to predict". Or, to be precise: It may be that the scientists who study these phenomena may not be the best people to predict their applications. This may be due to their training, their mindset, their unique viewpoint, who can say? But there are two classes of people that don't do horribly when it comes to prediction: science fiction authors, and inventors. – Mark Beadles Nov 11 '11 at 19:27
"The ‘real’ mathematics of the ‘real’ mathematicians, the mathematics of Fermat and Euler and Gauss and Abel and Riemann, is almost wholly ‘useless’" - GH Hardy – Dan Piponi Nov 11 '11 at 22:28

Quantum Chromodynamics, the electroweak theory, or general theory of relativity - or quantum gravity and string theory - are not methods to obtain new devices; they're theories meant to understand the truth about the Universe.

I find it unlikely that any of those things will become practically useful. It may still hypothetically happen, but if it will, no one can predict how this could happen at present - but even if those things happen to have practical applications sometime in the future, that's not why they've been and why they are being studied.

share|cite|improve this answer
The theory of electronic structure led to the modern technological age. Knowledge of relativity and quantum mechanics led to GPS and MRI machines. Its hardly inconceivable that present theoretical research won't yield similar fruit. But, of course, it is not practical applicability but "the truth" (as you put it) that is the motivation of those studying these esoteric fields in any age. – user346 Mar 27 '11 at 15:59
@Lubos I really liked this answer. One thing is for sure. If these things happen to yield some practical applications in the future, they will carry an associated tax. – xavimol Mar 27 '11 at 16:29
Good answer but it should also be mentioned that the reason people finance science is because they do believe it will bring them something back. Not because of good old thirst for knowledge. If it will become clear in the (near?) future that fundamental physics won't bring anything practical anymore I can very well imagine that no one will be putting their money into it and the science dies. – Marek Mar 28 '11 at 7:02
Related to that is the fact that the machines we need are becoming more and more expensive. I still don't understand how anyone right in their mind could have poured so much money into LHC. Though I am glad that their have :) – Marek Mar 28 '11 at 7:04
@Marek One should keep a perspective. The whole cost of the LHC is 7.5bn euros, including cern contribution to the 4 experiments(wiki info). Again from wiki, a Nimitz airplane carrier cost is 6.2billion dollars. The new Ford carrier will be in the ballpark of 14billion dollars each. As airplane carriers are bought on the precautionary principle and may be completely destroyed in a war, an investment contributed by many countries on the LHC is pocket money in comparison. – anna v Mar 28 '11 at 9:25

The experimental testing of these theories, and further assuming we might be able to test string theory sometime in the next decades, will result in new methods of detection, new techniques in data management and filtering signal from noise, and push other developments. These may then be transferable to other applications. The Apollo lunar program had a similar effect, though we brought nothing back from the moon which had any great utility.

share|cite|improve this answer

You asked for speculation, so here is outlandish speculation:

We can do engineering all the way down to the atomic scale. The reason is that life is made of atoms, and biology is complicated processes capable of general purpose computation, so atoms can do complicated things. There is no reason that we should be able to do engineering with nuclei, because our universe doesn't embed life in nuclear structures.

But that doesn't mean that you can't try. Suppose you could build a pion laser, and stabilize it by the appropriate methods, by surrounding it with the appropriate reflectors to prevent 2-photon decay, or change to charged pion very quickly to prevent decay, or ... I don't know, or else this wouldn't be speculation. Then you would be able to do nuclear engineering, meaning move nuclei around like you move atoms with light lasers, and pump energy into hadronic states at will, not by collisions, but by engineering. Without good bosonic fields which you can manipulate over relatively large scales, there is no hope for any of this.

Using a pion laser, you might be able to blow up elementary particles in a spherically symmetric way, like balloons, and let them collapse onto themselves to make black holes. This requires a controlled implosion, because the mass of a nuclear scale black hole is that of a mountain. If you can somehow make a symmetric implosion which shrinks the pumped up hadron by 10 orders of magnitude, to get some black hole states at some heavy but achievable mass, you can make monopoles, black holes, strings, and turn anything into energy.

I spent many hours of my youth trying to make this hopelessly futuristic idea work, because it is the only hope we have of investigating the Planck scale by even speculatively achievable technology. I think this type of thing might work out in 200 years, and produce a monopole-driven total mass-energy converter.

share|cite|improve this answer
There's no reason why it should take 200 years to make, if it is at all possible. But it does sound like we might have to have a Vernor Vinge "singularity" first. – Mitchell Porter Aug 28 '11 at 5:38
Very interesting. Could you please elaborate on the paragraph that starts with "Using a pion laser.." – Revo Jul 16 '12 at 15:09
@Revo: Look, this is just doing enginnering with nuclei using nuclear scale fields. We only use "E" and "B", if we have "pi_0", then you can do all sorts of things, like coherently manipulate nuclei. You can make a skyrmion of any size, and then you can try to implode nuclear scale implosions. This is a complete fantasy, as appropriate for the futuristic time-range of the question. Making a pion laser requires controlling the photon mixing somehow, or else stabilizing charged pion beams with a charged boson. It's a total fantasy today. – Ron Maimon Jul 16 '12 at 17:03
No I was actually referring to for example "blow up elementary particles in a spherically symmetric way" then "let them collapse like black holes" and "making monopoles". I mean I do not understand how elementary particles can be used to cause spherically symmetric explosion, let alone collapsing hadrons to form black holes and how would that help forming monopoles in principle? – Revo Jul 16 '12 at 17:23
@Revo: A proton is a skyrmion, which is a spherically symmetric soliton of the pion vacuum. You can make skyrmions of any radius classically, but they are unstable to symmetric collapse to a point. If you add certain energy flux you can blow up the skyrmion like a balloon, to make a classical spherically symmetric skyrmion, then let it collapse naturally to concentrate as much energy as you like in something like a proton radius in a symmetric implosion (at least if the collapse is controlled). – Ron Maimon Jul 16 '12 at 17:39

I feel quite sure that we will have technological breakthroughs but i think the most important findings will successfully link perception/awareness/consciousness with the so called external universe.

share|cite|improve this answer
Could You explain "external universe"? – Georg May 24 '11 at 11:18

There are applications of particle theory. Well, it depends on what you call particle theory. There are projects of sensors which use neutrons to detect explosives (google gave me e.g. this paper). To develop such a device excellent understanding of particle physics is needed. Neutrino telescopes will be perfect devices to study the Sun and the Earth core soon. Which is useful for weather and cataclysms prediction. You might think that these applications are too engineering, but you never know which tiny details you need, so you have to discover all of them.

For astrophysics one of interesting applications I've heard of is using pulsars as a positioning system. Instead of expensive and short-living sattelites which work only at the Earth you may use perfectly stable coordinate system which is Ok for few light years off the home planet. It is not string theory, but just an example of engineering stuff which comes out of pure science in an extremely unexpected way.

Speaking of science fiction, which you probably had in mind. String theory studies time and space. Right now we may operate (or at least know how to operate) on matter (all conventional technoloies, nuclar stuff, etc), fields (radio) and combination of the two (lasers and similar). The thing which is impossible to control is gravitation. General relativity explains why: gravitation is tightly connected with space and time itself. However, it does not explain all the details. To know the details we will need string theory or its successor/competitor. XX century taught us that you can be never sure that you know everything (see citations from Lord Kelvin). Small but annoying problem of inconsistency between general relativity and quantum mechanics might produce as many new physics as "small problem" with atomic spectra. Or it might not. You never know.

share|cite|improve this answer

Cultural enrichment.

Let me explain. String theory is a work of art. Art has no practical application, you say? No! It is practical in enriching culture and uplifting the emotions of mankind. So is string theory. The emotional satisfaction that you get out of it. Shout it out to the whole world!

We fund art, so why not string theory! Oh, yeah!

share|cite|improve this answer
So if I apply for funding to make a huge multi-billion-dollar modern art piece consisting of a huge tunnel underground with lots of fancy-looking electronics ...? – Emilio Pisanty Jul 16 '12 at 15:58
if your art piece had the potential to create technological advancement, and the ability to change the way most of humanity views themselves, the environment, our planet, the universe, and everything a part of reality? they just might say yes. and you have to admit: the LHC's guts look pretty cool! – RapidWebs Dec 1 '14 at 3:10