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The future of the Large Hadron Collider - Comment on 2012 April 10

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2012 April 10

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Physicists believe that the Higgs is there. If it turns out not to be there, or to have wildly different properties to what the theories say, the equations will have to be torn up – a prospect that fills physicists with dread and nervous anticipation in equal measure. Read more:

Here some excerpts from an article about the future of the LHC:


Large Hadron Collider restarts: it’s make-or-break time for the Higgs hunters

Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider have been given a tough deadline to find the God Particle.

On the French-Swiss border near Geneva, the biggest machine ever built is preparing for a new assault on its elusive quarry. Because it is now make-or-break time for the Scientists at Cern, Europe’s nuclear research laboratory, as their titanic Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most powerful atom smasher in the world, gears up for a frantic rush to corner the elusive Higgs boson, better (if inaccurately) known as the God Particle.

Cern made a tentative announcement last year that it had found “hints” of the Higgs; in the next six months, it will either pin down the elusive particle or force physicists back to the drawing board. The LHC has been repaired and fettled over the winter, and is this week completing a series of test firings before starting high-energy collisions next week.

Engineers are readying their machine for a last, turbo-charged offensive.

Physicists believe not only that the Higgs is there, but that its properties fall between certain parameters. If it turns out not to be there, or to have wildly different properties to what the theories say, the equations will have to be torn up – a prospect that fills physicists with dread and nervous anticipation in equal measure.

With a major overhaul of the LHC due this year, which will see the £6 billion machine shut down for 18 months, the atmosphere at Cern is intense. Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director-general, has instructed his scientists to confirm or rule out the existence of a Higgs boson (or more precisely a Higgs with the mass predicted by science) before the autumn.

To give their physicists a fighting chance, engineers agreed last month to increase the power of the LHC for the duration of 2012 from seven teraelectronvolts (TeV) of energy to eight, giving each microscopic beam the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed.

One way or the other, Prof Heuer says, 2012 will be the year the Higgs nut is finally cracked. “We plan to have around four times as many statistics this year, and that should settle the question of the standard-model Higgs by the end of the summer. We will have an answer to the Shakespeare question: to be or not to be.”

The Higgs is the embodiment of an ether-like field that, according to the “Standard Model” of physics, endows all other particles with their mass and is a major missing piece in the physics jigsaw puzzle. Without the Higgs mechanism a major part of the Standard Model, a series of equations that describe how the basic particles and forces interact, will be incomplete.

Now there is a growing sense that the search may at last be coming to an end – a belief strengthened by the final analysis of data from the American Tevatron, the now-defunct forerunner of the LHC, which found strikingly similar “blips” in its results – terabytes of statistical data generated by the debris resulting from particle collisions.

Cern knows that public – and political – expectation is mounting that a “Higgs result”, which will probably mean Nobel Prizes all round, is needed soon. The LHC costs £690 million a year to run and in a cash-strapped Europe, esoteric research like this is always vulnerable to budget cuts.

But the engineers are also thinking ahead to a new phase in the life of the LHC – when the machine can be ramped up to full power and perhaps open up a new window of post-Higgs, super-high-energy physics. The machine will enter a longer period of hibernation at the end of 2012 for its final upgrade. The LHC is designed to handle 14TeV of energy, but before turning it up to full power, engineers must pull the massive detectors apart and test and repair 10,000 connections along the entire length of the accelerator to make sure they will not buckle under the strain.

The reward for their hard work could be – in 2014 when the collider is switched on again – an understanding of dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to make up a quarter of the universe, compared to the one part in 25 made up of “ordinary” matter.

Shedding the first light on the dark universe, Prof Heuer said, would unquestionably be an even bigger achievement than solving the Higgs riddle.

Dr Alan Barr, an Oxford physicist searching for signs of dark matter at the Atlas detector, added: “We know a lot about what Higgs bosons would look like if they exist. Dark matter is much more of an unknown story. There is lots of evidence from astronomers that this stuff must exist, but we have no direct evidence on Earth of what it must be made of.”

Looking even further into the future, scientists believe that towards the end of this decade the LHC has the potential to discover extra dimensions and even begin to solve the greatest puzzle of all – the reconciliation of quantum physics (the world of the sub-atomic) and Einstinian relativity (the world of stars, galaxies and black holes). The great man himself spent the latter part of his career trying to come up with a “grand unified theory” but failed, as has everyone since.

The atmosphere in Geneva is focused. The people asking – and trying to answer – these most fundamental questions of life, the universe and everything spend their spare time skiing and the rest of their lives looking for sub-microscopic needles in cosmic haystacks. It is an unusual life but clearly a satisfying one (and well rewarded; staff pay no Swiss income tax and have other diplomatic-style privileges, although one gets the impression that most would cheerfully work for nothing).

For the people of Cern there will always be more questions, and it is their job to answer them. As Dr Barr says: “It is curious that most of the energy in the universe is trapped in something that we don’t [understand] … we have no idea how we can make use of dark matter, we do not know what it is, but it is curious that it is there.”

It is that curiosity that got the LHC built in the first place, a massive gamble that the secrets of the universe can be revealed by brute force.


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