For several years now, thousands of the world's most accomplished scientists have been gathering in Europe, not to explore the heavens but the frontiers of inner space. They are hoping to discover subatomic particles so tiny that they have never been detected. They think these particles will help explain why the universe has organized itself into so many different things - planets and stars, tables and chairs, flesh and blood.
To do it, they have constructed one of largest, most sophisticated machines ever built to replicate what the universe was like a few nanoseconds after it was created. And as Steve Kroft reports, it is all going to happen 300 feet underground on the border between Switzerland and France.
Under the meadows and mountains outside Geneva, Switzerland, 9,000 physicists from all over the world have been taking part in one of the biggest, most ambitious scientific collaborations in history. It's being conducted in a vast subterranean laboratory carved out of earth and bedrock under two different countries. And it has pushed the limits of technology beyond state of the art, towards the boundaries of science fiction.
It's called the "Large Hadron Collider," a massive scientific instrument that took 20 years to create and cost $8 billion.
Scientist Austin Ball, who helped build it, gave 60 Minutes a tour of the experiment before they sealed it up and began a series of run-throughs. It was during one of those tests that some equipment malfunctioned, setting back the project several months. When it resumes, they hope to begin cracking open the tiniest bits of the atom, by racing them through a 17-mile tunnel and crashing them into each other at nearly the speed of light.
"Forty million times a second, bunches of protons collide in the center of this barrel section," Ball explains, standing in front of a pipe that the particles will come through. "And they reproduce conditions that hadn't existed since a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang."
By traveling back in time and recreating the earliest seconds of the cosmos, scientists are hoping to discover the smallest building blocks of nature, and the forces that brought them together to form so many different things. And they're planning to do it with a machine that's simply expanding on one of man's very first ideas.
"I have to say, it is pretty stupid to take two things and throw them at each other as fast as you can and see what comes out," says scientist Bob Stanek, who has been working on the collider for 14 years.
He agrees it's a primitive concept. "But we're humans, and that's all we know."