I wonder what technology can be obtained from such very expensive experiments/institutes as e.g. undertaken in CERN?

I understand that e.g. the discovery of the Higgs Boson confirms our understanding matter. However, what can result form this effort? Are there examples in history where such experiments directly or indirectly lead to corresponding(!) important new technology? Or is the progress that comes from developing and building such machines greater than those from the actual experimental results?

  • $\begingroup$ This question seems much more broad and opinion-based than my recent question about LHC, but I guess mine was less politically correct and thus, was closed down? Doesn't seem fair. $\endgroup$ – Brad Cooper - Purpose Nation Mar 29 '15 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ Can't edit my comment above anymore, but here is my question for comparison. Which do you think is more broad and opinion-based? physics.stackexchange.com/questions/171790/… $\endgroup$ – Brad Cooper - Purpose Nation Mar 29 '15 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ @PurposeNation Frankly, I'm pretty sure your question is more broad/opinion based. However, I did vote to reopen your question. Although I'm confused why it attributes me with voting to close it when it was already closed by the time I first saw it. Yours is not less politically correct, it's just that yours asks what other particle the Higgs could be and this asks what we expect to come of investments like the LHC. This question has an easy answer while yours has many different and competing answers that are dependent on what theories the answerer prefers. $\endgroup$ – Jim Mar 30 '15 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ @PurposeNation And we get that you are unhappy about your question being closed, but taking it out on other questions by running around and saying "This one is worse but it stayed open. That's not fair" is petty and very much beneath you. You're better than that $\endgroup$ – Jim Mar 30 '15 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ To everyone else, this question doesn't fit the category of too broad. Too broad is for question where there are either too many possible answers or good answers would be too long for this site. There are 7 answers written a long time ago, none are very long, and each answer says slightly similar things. Clearly this isn't too broad. You could make the case that it is too opiniony, but The existing answers would tend to invalidate that as well $\endgroup$ – Jim Mar 30 '15 at 15:03

The truth is we don't know. But when you think about it, how can we know? If we knew what technology would eventually come out of experiments like this, why would we not build that technology now?

Large expensive machines like the CERN supercollider help us to further understand the laws of nature. And through understanding these laws, new technologies arise. But we, the physicists, have absolutely no idea what wonderful technologies might result tomorrow because we invested so heavily in science today.

It's purported in 1850 after Faraday developed the electric generator, the British minister of finance asked him what practical value there was to electricity. Faraday could not have known that electricity would one day form the backbone of all modern society (but that didn't stop him from making a snarky remark). It's hard to predict the future; we labour in science in the hopes that what we do will prove useful for some new and amazing technologies. But we don't know what technologies will result from our expensive laboratories any more than Faraday knew that electricity would allow you to make a computer.

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    $\begingroup$ I think what you are saying about Faraday was about Hertz. After Hertz had successfully detected EM waves and showed they have properties earlier predicted by Maxwell, he was asked about the use of such discoveries and he replied that there were none. $\endgroup$ – KCd Sep 18 '14 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ @KCd What I said about Faraday was about Faraday, but that bit about Hertz is an even better example $\endgroup$ – Jim Sep 18 '14 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ Comment to the answer (v1): Note that the purported quote of Faraday to the British minister of finance is disputed. $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Sep 18 '14 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Qmechanic Yeah, that's why I used "purported". But if anyone really objects, I'll swap that out for the Hertz quote that KCd mentioned $\endgroup$ – Jim Sep 18 '14 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention most (if not all) of CERN's software is hosted online as open source. :) $\endgroup$ – Qix - MONICA WAS MISTREATED Sep 21 '14 at 5:22

Places like CERN are a huge forcing function for computer science - think high performance computing, networking, data storage, etc. If my memory is correct, Tim Berners-Lee was at CERN when he started developing the WWW...

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for mentioning the birth of the web. I believe TBL himself has said HTTP and HTML would very likely be have been proprietary protocols if they had been developed by the industry rather than in the very open environment at CERN. $\endgroup$ – l0b0 Sep 16 '14 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @l0b0 - perhaps - but if they were proprietary they'd have died an early death. "Proof positive that this 'hypertext' thing is of no practical value", we'd be told, and flat files would still be All The Rage. :-) $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Sep 16 '14 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @CuriousOne I don't think the web is small potatoes compared to anything Google has done, or even everything that they have done. $\endgroup$ – l0b0 Sep 16 '14 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ @l0b0: CERN didn't invent "the web". The internet was around way before their contribution and what is around today was mostly built by private money on top of what CERN did with regards to browsers and markup languages (please compare the entire LHC budget against a quarterly income statement of Google!). Having said that, I wasn't talking about the web but about the size of the server farms. Back when it was planned first, the CERN servers were considered substantial, today they are small compared to what's driving the internet. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Sep 16 '14 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ The web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee while he worked at CERN (check out the link in my first comment). The web is not the same as the Internet, which had by then already been around for decades. $\endgroup$ – l0b0 Sep 16 '14 at 23:15

In practice very little new technology results from experiments like those at CERN. While they are pushing the envelope on some things like the design of resonators, power klystrons and particle detector technology, the immediate technological return on those things is relatively small, even though one can argue that modern x-ray imaging (tomography) has profited highly from folks who did high energy and nuclear physics as students.

More importantly, though, facilities like CERN and the hundreds of associated institutions are teaching tens of thousands of students to think far outside the box. Very few of these students will stick with high energy physics in the long run (there are not that many paid jobs there). Most of them will go on to do other things, and they will use what they have learned about technology and management under difficult conditions at an extreme science/engineering project like LHC to push the envelope in whatever they will be doing in their lives. That is of enormous economic value to participating nations. If all of us would be happy with plain vanilla jobs, then all of us would still be stuck on the farm.

Apart from that, having been part of something like that is a constant source of pride in anybody's life who has been there. It's not something you forget the day you walk out the door. It gives you an idea of what humans can do, if they set their minds to something!

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    $\begingroup$ Although no Higgs-based technology can be imagined now a days, I pretty much disagree with your first paragraph... For instance what about nuclear medicine? That's a huge spin off of this kind of activities. $\endgroup$ – DarioP Sep 17 '14 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ @DarioP: If you read my post, again, you will find that I mentioned nuclear medicine (in form of x-ray imaging) among other technologies that are fairly unique to high energy physics. Other than that, the HEP budget is far too small to produce a lot of technology. What you are really impressed by is how far HEP physicists can spread the dollars they get, by building extremely impressive structures on a dime. Part of that "secret to success" is that we are using existing technologies very efficiently. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Sep 17 '14 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ And quite aside from anything else, the desirable "difficult conditions" and "extreme engineering" at CERN are way cheaper and more efficient than the usual government stimulus for innovative big technology, which is to have a war... $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '14 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @SteveJessop: Sorry to disappoint you, but the main source of funding for nuclear physics was war, and much of the specific HEP infrastructure is driven by military applications (like fast digitizers and high speed electronics), but this is not the forum to discuss that. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Sep 17 '14 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ Just out of interest, if I were to say the opposite of what I actually said, for instance "the same money would in the end drive more technology if spent on wars instead of science", would you agree with that? I'm genuinely finding it hard to figure out what you're asserting, other than that I'm ignorant and hence unworthy of your proper attention. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '14 at 20:29

Just to mention the latest developments brought up from neutrino science, it seems that the useless, wimpy, weakly interacting neutrinos (and their anti-neutrino sisters) can be harnessed to detect and monitor nuclear reactors anywhere in the world that violate non-proliferation agreements

I remember a discussion about a really big neutrino beam that could be in principle be directed to a rogue nuclear reactor and disrupt their isotopes, but I'm not sure if that is really feasible. But the fact is that 20 years ago this kind of technology wasn't even on the map, and now is being seriously considered for development and implementation

regarding detection: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01440389008403936#.VBi4Ry4qvdE

regarding bomb deactivation: http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0305062


There is already a number of good answers, but in addition let's compare LHC, the "useless" particle collider; with ITER, the path to the final solution of the humanity's energy hunger.

They share technologies in the fields of superconductivity, vacuum, radio frequency, diagnostic instrumentation... the latter would probably not being constructed right now, without all the research done for the former (and its predecessors).


You are thinking too much physics.

Instead, think about how you process the physics data that is generated from the experiments.
The answer is that there are not only physicists at CERN but also - and actually quite a lot - hardware and software engineers.

The detectors are one huge combination of custom built hardware. From there on it continues to custom processing boards(FPGAs etc.) to custom software that all needs to perform greatly to handle the huge amount of generated data.

This know-how is made public in papers and theses and from there on software engineers and chip designers all around the world can profit from it. This can also result in new open-source libraries or other projects.

Let me give you the interactive C++ interpreter Cling as an example which originated from CERN and is totally unrelated to physics.

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    $\begingroup$ There is not a single thing in modern FPGAs that originated from high energy physics requirements. The high energy physics community simply uses whatever technology is available commercially to get the job done. There are chips that are made very specifically for HEP applications, but none of them are available commercially and many of them do not meet even the most trivial requirements for commercial application (like having temperature stable internal references). The technology required to make commercially viable integrated circuits is way too expensive for HEP applications. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Sep 16 '14 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @CuriousOne At the end of the chain there are processing cards that have the same requirements as any other processing card has. $\endgroup$ – inf Sep 17 '14 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ Pretty much. Not that FPGAs were ever needed past the Level 1 triggers, anyway. I worked on those things for ATLAS back then, and everybody who kept suggesting anything else than run of the mill hardware simply didn't know how to program computers for performance. That was obvious to those who had actually looked in detail at the early trigger benchmarks, which overestimated the computational requirements by two orders of magnitude, because the student who had written the algorithms didn't know what the L1 and L2 caches were and how cache misses reduced performance... $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Sep 17 '14 at 5:48

This question gives me an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite stories in science and engineering. Though I doubt I am an expert on the history of the transistor, so if anyone knows more I am certainly interested to hear about it.

The merit of a study should not be determined by the applicability of the results alone. For instance, the transistor (the piece of electronics found in effectively everything you use) came from an obscure branch of quantum mechanics which was called surface physics. The theoretical work began in the early 1900's during the beginning of quantum and had no immediate (or even foreseeable) application/use. By the late 1940's to early 1950's, the first prototypes of the transistor were developed.

By the year 2006, the transistor alone would be responsible for over 30 trillion dollars (that is \$30,000,000,000,000 USD) in revenue (this comes from a 2007 MIT Masters thesis on a market evaluation of semiconductor technologies). A more recent report by McKinsey&Company found that search engines alone generate some $780 billion USD GDP annually across global markets.

The point is that seemingly intangible theory can result in very profitable applications, but that should not be the main driving purpose of basic research. However, if you need further proof, I will quote from a recent study [van Bochove, 2012] that states:

Directing basic research towards economic opportunities is detrimental to growth and may reduce the growth rate by as much as one half. The steady state is shown to be globally stable; in the steady state, the growth rate is independent of the research intensity, but the level of income depends on it. Given current OECD levels of R&D spending and saving, a one dollar increase of applied R&D spending will increase national income with 6-25 dollars and one dollar extra basic research by 20-100 dollars. These rates of return are ten and thirty times higher, respectively, than those on physical capital investment.

van Bochove, C.A. "Basic Research and Prosperity: Sampling and Selection of Technological Possibilities and of Scientific Hypotheses as an Alternative Engine of Endogenous Growth," CWTS Working Paper Series, Leiden University, 2012.


In my view (and all the answers are viewstoo), the work done at CERN (it's strange that in the search for the most little things possible, the highest price must be paid) is a big waste of money. The scientists working there are mostly of the white male species who want to prove their so-called objective models of reality, which are in fact subjective models in disguise, (don't get me wrong, some of them are truly curious) in the hope receiving a big money Nobel prize. Their PR is used to make the rest of the world think that what tey are doing is of the uttermost importance, and one day we'll pick the scientific fruits from the tree of knowledge (which is too heavy already) and everyone on earth will profit from their peeking on the smallest scales possible. We are bombarded with carefully chosen words to convince other people to keep the funding tap open.

But what "wonderful" technologies (only a very minor percentage of the world's population is giving shape to the surface of the earth, thereby destroying the wonderful Nature that's still left on our beautiful planet forcing other people to live in it) will CERN give us? Of what use can the confirmations of how the world of elementary particles behaves possibly be? I think none. And if so, why always creating new things with this knowledge (that is the industry). The unstoppable progress of technology, science, and knowledge is just a fairytale planted in the minds of people to give science green light to do their reproducible, standardized search for so-called objective knowledge.

I like science very much. It's like a puzzle book given to us by Nature. But I'm afraid that the fruits of science on the tree of knowledge will destroy the tree (biodiversity).

  • $\begingroup$ I have one fairly important question and one slightly less important comment regarding this answer. Question: In what way is it so relevant that the scientists working at CERN may or may not be mostly white males (who, by the way, are the same species as you) that you had to make mention of it? Comment: There is a chance that no new or useful technologies will result from CERN, but if we don't do the research at all, then that chance becomes a certainty. $\endgroup$ – Jim May 31 '17 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ One more thing that might be helpful on a different subject: I read through your profile; interesting life story. I have a couple of touch-ups that might improve the clarity for future readers (I had to work to figure out what you meant a couple of places and thought I'd be nice and offer some suggestions). First, "an attack of nostalgia" is a confusing statement. Nostalgia is a good thing; nobody associates it with "attack". Try saying "but I grew homesick for Amsterdam". Second, you wrote "the last fear was a nice year" Should be "last year". Last, use "thesis" instead of "essay". Cheers! :) $\endgroup$ – Jim May 31 '17 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ Funding trivial pursuits is usually a big waste of money but we do it anyways because we can afford it (well...some can). The spirit of this quote "Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending" by R.R. Wilson (see here history.fnal.gov/testimony.html) sums it all pretty well. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero May 31 '17 at 13:47

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