By now you’ve no doubt heard about the major discovery at the Large Hadron Collider—a new particle that many speculate could be the Higgs boson. Postulated 50 years ago, the Higgs boson is basically a particle representation of the field that the Standard Model considers responsible for investing the other particles in the universe with mass. It’s a discovery that has the theoretical physics community positively giddy. (And if you want to see theoretical physicists keeping it real, check out the Large Hadron Rap
Now, theoretical physicists are a conservative bunch. Unofficially, the buzz is all Higgs all the time, but all the team at CERN will say conclusively is that they have discovered a new particle. The data certainly suggests that it might be the Higgs boson but nobody’s willing to commit until they acquire further data. That’s sound reasoning. Anyone who followed the fiasco of cold fusion knows that there’s good reason for the scientific method. More data will allow researchers to identify the Higgs boson with certainty—or determine whether it is simply a Higgs boson, one of five predicted by supersymmetry.
The biggest part of the signal the team obtained was from the particle decaying into two photons. Given that photons are massless, that indicates an indirect interaction that might involve virtual particles that then decay into photons. Maybe lots of photons. Indeed, the data indicates that a lot of very complex and unanticipated phenomenon might be working. The results create more questions than they answer. The natural response for scientists is to gather more data, which the entire community is eager to do. There’s just one problem: The LHC had been scheduled to shut down in the fall for an upgrade—a shutdown scheduled to last for a whopping two years.
Only a five-year-old on Christmas Eve would understand just how slowly that time is likely to pass.
Obviously, the original schedule has to be modified. Plans now call for another several months of experiments prior to shut down, but ultimately the upgrade needs to happen in order to let the LHC operates at higher energies to continue its pursuit of the Higgs boson mystery. In the meantime, science really needs a bigger and better supercollider to be able to run the kinds of experiments necessary to answer the bevy of questions that these results have raised.
Of course, that raises a whole different set of questions like where do you locate it, how do you gather the billions of dollars required, and how long will it take to design and build. In some ways, theoretical physics just got caught flat-footed, and there is no way to ever catch up. Particle colliders are not designed and built in a few years—it costs tens of billions of dollars and needs to be championed for decades. In the current climate of austerity, it's difficult to see what country or even collection of countries is likely to step up and make it happen.
There was a time the community had a chance to get a jump on the effort. Twenty years ago, the Superconducting Super Collider was the center of a swirl of controversy over Big Science and how stems sliced needed to be spent. Ultimately, the project got canceled. That may have been a very big mistake. According to Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll in a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday, not only would the superconducting super collider have been an ideal tool to investigate this phenomenon, it might have led to the discovery much sooner. The design was capable of accelerating particles to much higher energies and it would've been online five or six years earlier.
Big Science is hair-raisingly expensive. Modern-day price tags always seem extreme, but it's important to remember that in context the cost is at least the high and in context, there have always been far more worthy causes them money to spend upon them. I admit, I might be a bit biased, having an undergraduate degree in physics, but the only thing I know for certain is that this kind of fundamental research that informs our understanding of how the world around us works has to be supported. And part of the way to make that happen is for those of us who are technologists to stand up and communicate the importance to the people around us, to do everything we can to support these projects. Understanding our world informs everything that we do and everything that we are. So how about it, folks? Are you ready to stand up for science?
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