for National Geographic News
A multibillion-dollar atom smasher on the Franco-Swiss border may help scientists treat diseases, improve the Internet, and open the door to travel through extra dimensions, according to physicists.
On Wednesday scientists cheered and champagne flowed as the first beam of protons lapped around the Large Hadron Collider's (LHC) 17-mile (27-kilometer) underground tunnel at the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
The collider, the world's largest particle accelerator, was designed to solve big mysteries in science, such as the nature of dark matter and what the universe was like just after the big bang.
The massive machine could also lead to medical and technological advances, some experts argue.
Such potential breakthroughs are often an "ancillary benefit" of big science projects like the LHC, said Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and author at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Still, Krauss said, these benefits are a misguided way to justify building the atom smasher.
"It's like trying to argue that manned space missions were useful for Tang," he said, referring to the powdered drink mix popularized in U.S. households by NASA in the 1960s.
(Find out more about human space exploration.)
"Our job as scientists is to explain that these esoteric things [such as dark matter] are not completely unrelated to humanity," he added. "Ultimately, we address the questions of how we got here and what we're made of."
Already Providing Benefits
In the months ahead, scientists will use the LHC to ramp up opposing proton beams to nearly light speed and smash particles together, breaking them into smaller components.
Monstrous detectors will pore through the detritus, helping scientists examine the conditions of the very early universe.
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