Inventions born out of the world’s most ambitious experiments

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality.”—Albert Einstein

Einstein echoes a sentiment shared by much of humankind—that wonder is an experience to be cherished, and therefore it is valuable to indulge it.

This sentiment is the primary driver for the creation of many engineering marvels, particularly those which facilitate large-scale science experiments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, International Space Station, James Webb Space Telescope, The Human Genome Project and Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, to name a few.

There is an argument that it is perhaps unethical to distribute our efforts in pursuit of better understanding our universe whilst humanitarian challenges brought about by factors such as poverty and climate change go unaddressed. One counter to this argument is that, although these experiments have been created to indulge our curiosity, it does not mean that they are without practical benefit—these projects often act as innovation incubators, benefiting humankind with inventions which are oftentimes seminal. In order to better understand this argument, I have taken a brief look at a couple of the world’s most ambitious experiments—the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station—and the serendipitous inventions born from them.

The Large Hadron Collider


The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) came into being in 1954 with the primary objective to study the basic constituents of matter. This was to be achieved by colliding subatomic particles at close to the speed of light to produce energy which is subsequently transformed into matter in the form of new particles. One such new particle is the notorious Higgs boson, which was first proposed by Peter Higgs in 1964 and discovered in the particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider nearly 50 years later.

The discovery of the Higgs boson was particularly noteworthy as it is thought to be the carrier particle of the Higgs field—the field thought to endow all subatomic particles with mass through its interactions with them. Furthermore, it proved the efficacy of the Standard Model of particle physics—the theory which describes three of the four known fundamental forces (electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions) in the universe and classifies all known elementary particles.

Thus, the Large Hadron Collider has proven to be incredibly valuable in testing theoretical predictions in particle physics, and it seems likely that the experimental results facilitated by the Large Hadron Collider will help to answer some of physics’ biggest unanswered questions. However, with the cost of finding the Higgs Boson totalling around $13.25 billion, it seems such enlightenment does not come cheap.

At least some justification for the cost can be found in a number of inventions which have been incidental to the project. One such invention is the high-quality yet low-cost High Energy Ventilator which was designed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic when the team at CERN realised that the techniques which are routinely used to supply and control gas at desired temperatures and pressures in their detectors could be readily adapted to operate ventilators. Another is the Precision Laser Inclinometer—a cheaper portable alternative to common seismometers—which was born out of a need to monitor seismic noise in order to account for such noise in their data. There is also the Gas Electron Multiplier detector which employs an innovative amplification technique, initially used to aid detection in the large hadron collider, and now also being employed in radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer. Finally, perhaps the most notable of inventions is the World Wide Web, which was invented by Tim Berners-Lee back in 1989 in order to ease the sharing of information amongst the extensive community of scientists working for CERN around the world.

International space station


The International Space Station is the largest artificial object in the solar system, and—given it orbits the earth roughly every 93 minutes—is often visible to the naked eye when we look up at the sky at night. Have you ever wondered what its purpose is? The International Space Station serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory dedicated to helping humans learn how to live in space. The result of a collaboration between five space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA, it was launched in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since 2000 by astronauts carrying out research in a wide variety of fields including materials science, meteorology, medicine and life sciences.

Costing $150 billion to build, the International Space Station is the world record holder for the most expensive manmade object. However, like the Large Hadron Collider, it has produced technological developments that contribute to the justification for this expense. One such development is improved stem cells for cancer treatments—stem cells are produced by bone marrow in the human body, and the microgravity environment produced by the International Space Station essentially mimics the bone marrow environment to enable cells to be grow more effectively than in ground-based labs. Another is an improved CT scanner—when the team behind the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), which is now docked on the International Space Station, wanted to ensure they could measure the time which X-rays were received by NICER to the nearest nanosecond, they developed an X-ray generator in order to verify the efficacy of their equipment on the ground; in so doing, they produced an X-ray generator which can be turned on and off more quickly than traditional X-ray sources, and this technology has led to the development of CT scanners which reduce the amount of radiation the patient is exposed to. Crystallised proteins for the treatment of conditions such as muscular dystrophy and cancer have also benefited from the microgravity environment provided by the International Space Station—crystallising such proteins in this environment improves their quality as they are subject to less stress. Data from ECOSTRESS—which makes use of the International Space Station’s unique trajectory around the Earth—has been applied to identify and address critical thresholds of water stress in climate sensitive biomes. Also, the diagnostic capability of ultrasound has been advanced as a result of a need to be able to diagnose astronauts on board the International Space Station in the likely event that there is no one medically trained present. Furthermore, artificial retinas to restore sight to those with degenerative eye diseases have been created aboard the International Space Station, where the microgravity environment limits the undesirable aggregation of particles in films used to produce the retinas.

Beyond the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station, the James Webb Telescope has produced a diagnostic tool for eye disease; data processing software from the Hubble Space Telescope has been applied to process the bioinformatics data from the human genome; and wind power generation has been improved using technology from the Mars 2020 Rover.

Therefore, even if the raison d’être of projects such as these is curiosity, there is inevitably opportunity for value beyond this. It seems that every time we pursue discovery—although we do not know where the pursuit might lead—the information will inevitably be used, if not by our generation, then by future generations, to create tangible value for society.

Category: News | Author: Victoria Jones | Published: | Read more