A new kind of science has emerged over recent decades. Previously, researchers could satisfy their curiosities with laboratory equipment; however, tackling the most fundamental questions about the Universe far exceeds the capabilities of research groups, institutes and even nations. It can take decades to develop, construct and operate such experiments.
Three projects spanning the physical sciences illustrate the enormous feats and challenges of twenty-first century ‘big science’, ranging from esoteric quests for the fundamental constituents of matter to technology that will recreate the nuclear powerhouses of stars to meet increasing energy demands.
In September 2008, physicists began to operate the largest scientific instrument ever built: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)1 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). This 27-km-circumference ring, lying approximately 100 metres (m) beneath the surface on either side of the Swiss–French border, took 15 years to build, cost more than €3 billion, and will spend the next 15 years accelerating protons and atomic nuclei to almost the speed of light before smashing them together 40 million times per second. Surpassing the energy and collision rate of previous particle colliders by up to two orders of magnitude, the LHC will replicate the enormous energy densities that were present just
Testament to the huge engineering challenges posed by such a project, which relies on maintaining thousands of high-powered superconducting magnets at –271 °C, the LHC suffered a major electrical fault just days after it was switched on. In late 2009, however, the collider delivered its first tentative data to the four giant detectors sited around the ring where the particles collide, opening a new era in particle physics.