World Science Festival: What if Physicists Don't Find the Higgs Boson?

By Joseph Calamia | June 8, 2010 4:59 pm

bigbang“It’s as if we’re fish who have suddenly discovered we’re in water,” said Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek about the Large Hadron Collider. “The LHC is the device for ruffling up the waters so that we can see waves.”

Wilczek took part in a panel discussion at a World Science Festival event on Saturday. The discussion revealed a bit more about how physicists will do the ruffling and what waves they expect to see. Besides once again allaying doomsday fears, the panel discussed each detector in the LHC and how it will help them find the “cosmic molasses” we’re swimming in–what gives everything in the universe mass.

Their prime suspect is, of course, the Higgs Boson–the last animal in the Standard Model theory’s particle zoo–but what happens if the LHC can’t find it?

“My experiment is looking at the primordial soup, and we know it exists,” said Jennifer Klay, who helped to develop the  detector for ALICE. “We have more job security.” By soup, she means quark-gluon plasma, a liquid-like substance made from proton and neutron innards.

The three-story-tall ALICE detector will first look at a smash-up between lead nuclei.  She explains that a nucleus behaves very much like a liquid drop: “We’re taking two liquid drops, colliding them at very high energies, and trying to boil them into a steam, essentially, of quarks and gluons.” She won’t see the quarks and gluons directly, but will watch the process as they “condense” into more familiar protons and neutrons.

The ATLAS and CMS detectors will hunt for the Higgs. In the same way that physicists can’t see quarks, they won’t directly observe Higgs. Instead, they will use the seven-story-tall ATLAS to pick through the particle spray from protons’ collisions in an attempt to sieve out four familiar particles: two electrons and two “fat” electron cousins called muons. Monica Dunford, an experimental high-energy particle physicist who helped bring the ATLAS detector into operation, calls this “a double needle in the haystack.”

Wilczek believes that experimenters will see these four particles in two to five years after the LHC is running at full speed.

“The worst scenario to me, is that the LHC completes the Standard Model and doesn’t do anything more,” Wilczek said. “That would be horrible. We would learn something very profound, but we would also learn that Nature is a tease.”

Dunford agreed with Wilczek, but added that, given the LHC’s $6 billion price tag, they better find something. “We can’t say, ‘Gosh, we didn’t find anything? How about 20 billion?”

Related Content:
80beats: LHC Beam Zooms Past 1 Trillion Electron Volts, Sets World Record
80beats: In 1 Week, the LHC Will Try to Earn the Title, “Big Bang Machine”
Discoblog: I Swear: Subatomic Particles Are Singing to Me!
Bad Astronomy: LHC smacks some protons!

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