The Higgs hunter has just turned 10. Why is nobody celebrating? | Artificial intelligence
NEXT July will mark 50 years since humans set foot on the moon. The rumblings of commemoration can already be heard – even now Ryan Gosling, deputising for Neil Armstrong in the film First Man, is being castigated for failing to plant an American flag in the lunar regolith.
The moon landing was the first truly global media event, and an iconic expression of the human desire to explore and explain the universe. It is odd, then, that the anniversary of an event embodying that same aspiration has passed on 10 September with so little fanfare. With a global audience of more than 1 billion, the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider was actually seen by more people than the moon landing. As we said at the time, it was “to physics what the Apollo programme was to space exploration”.
No doubt the reticence is in part due to the ignominious failure of the gleaming new particle accelerator just 10 days after start-up. But in truth, the euphoria of the early days has given way to a more sober reality.
Let’s celebrate the positives. For a start, the LHC did not destroy the world by sucking it into a black hole, as doom-mongers predicted at the time. Fake news.
Then there is the Higgs boson, of course. Its discovery by the LHC in 2012 represented the crowning glory of the standard model of particle physics, our best stab so far at ordering the bric-a-brac of reality. This was the final confirmation of a theoretical idea conceived five years before Armstrong took his one small step – an inspiring validation of purely intellectual human endeavour.
“If things have gone quiet around the LHC, it is the silence of committed, concentrated endeavour”
It is also where the problems start. “There’s an enormous elephant in the room, and that’s that we know the standard model is not a final theory,” says Tara Shears of the University of Liverpool and the LHCb experiment. It fails to explain the nature of phenomena such as dark matter or dark energy, or even why the measured Higgs mass teeters on the very lowest boundary of what’s possible in a stable universe.
Supersymmetry was the much-vaunted successor to the standard model, predicting a swarm of additional particles to shore it up. “The LHC has meticulously searched in the open as well as in various nooks and crannies for these and has shown that they are not there,” says Ben Allanach of the University of Cambridge, a former supersymmetry adherent.
That is a blow to theorists’ egos, conditioned by a string of successes culminating in the Higgs discovery. It suggests that, whatever better theory is out there, it will not have the beauty of supersymmetry.
But no one said probing the essence of reality was easy. The LHC has already determined the contents of the universe with greater precision than any machine before it. Planned upgrades and new analysis techniques will further sharpen its eye. Hints of anomalies already seen may yet lead to insights. If things have gone quiet around the LHC, it is the silence of committed, concentrated endeavour. In Shears’s words, “we have to wait, work hard, and see”. We’ll hang on in there – happy birthday, LHC.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Smashing achievement”
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