In a recent Forbes article, astronomer and writer Ethan Siegel called for a big new particle collider. His reasoning was unusual. Typically, particle colliders are created to test theories — physicists' math shows that undiscovered particles ought to exist, and experimentalists use colliders to see whether they really do. This was the case with the Large Hadron Collider, which was built in Europe with the express purpose of detecting the elusive Higgs boson. It succeeded at that task, earning a Nobel Prize for the theorists who first predicted the particle.

But particle physics is running out of theories to test. The Higgs discovery puts the capstone on the so-called standard model of particle physics. Assuming the Hadron Collider doesn't pop out any completely unexpected new particles — which it has so far shown no sign of doing — it leaves theoretical physicists with nowhere to go. Siegel argues that an even bigger (and much more expensive) collider should be built on the chance that it discovers some as-yet-undreamed-of new phenomena. But fortunately governments seem unlikely to shell out the tens of billions of dollars required, based on nothing more than blind hope that interesting things will appear.

Particle physicists have referred to this seeming dead end as a nightmare scenario. But it illustrates a deep problem with modern science. Too often, scientists expect to do bigger, more expensive versions of the research that worked before. Instead, what society often needs is for researchers to strike out in entirely new directions.