As many of you will have already read, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], located at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, has “restarted”. Well, a restart of such a machine, after two years of upgrades, is not a simple matter, and perhaps we should say that the LHC has “begun to restart”. The process of bringing the machine up to speed begins with one weak beam of protons at a time — with no collisions, and with energy per proton at less than 15% of where the beams were back in 2012. That’s all that has happened so far.
If that all checks out, then the LHC operators will start trying to accelerate a beam to higher energy — eventually to record energy, 40% more than in 2012, when the LHC last was operating. This is the real test of the upgrade; the thousands of magnets all have to work perfectly. If that all checks out, then two beams will be put in at the same time, one going clockwise and the other counterclockwise. Only then, if that all works, will the beams be made to collide — and the first few collisions of protons will result. After that, the number of collisions per second will increase, gradually. If everything continues to work, we could see the number of collisions become large enough — approaching 1 billion per second — to be scientifically interesting within a couple of months. I would not expect important scientific results before late summer, at the earliest.
This isn’t to say that the current milestone isn’t important. There could easily have been (and there almost were) magnet problems that could have delayed this event by a couple of months. But delays could also occur over the coming weeks… so let’s not expect too much in 2015. Still, the good news is that once the machine gets rolling, be it in May, June, July or beyond, we have three to four years of data ahead of us, which will offer us many new opportunities for discoveries, anticipated and otherwise.
One thing I find interesting and odd is that many of the news articles reported that finding dark matter is the main goal of the newly upgraded LHC. If this is truly the case, then I, and most theoretical physicists I know, didn’t get the memo. After all,
- dark matter could easily be of a form that the LHC cannot produce, (for example, axions, or particles that interact only gravitationally, or non-particle-like objects)
- and even if the LHC finds signs of something that behaves like dark matter (i.e. something that, like neutrinos, cannot be directly detected by LHC’s experiments), it will be impossible for the LHC to prove that it actually is dark matter. Proof will require input from other experiments, and could take decades to obtain.
What’s my own understanding of LHC’s current purpose? Well, based on 25 years of particle physics research and ten years working almost full time on LHC physics, I would say (and I do say, in my public talks) that the coming several-year run of the LHC is for the purpose of
- studying the newly discovered Higgs particle in great detail, checking its properties very carefully against the predictions of the “Standard Model” (the equations that describe the known apparently-elementary particles and forces) to see whether our current understanding of the Higgs field is complete and correct, and
- trying to find particles or other phenomena that might resolve the naturalness puzzle of the Standard Model, a puzzle which makes many particle physicists suspicious that we are missing an important part of the story, and
- seeking either dark matter particles or particles that may be shown someday to be “associated” with dark matter.
Finding dark matter itself is a worthy goal, but the LHC may simply not be the right machine for the job, and certainly can’t do the job alone.
Why the discrepancy between these two views of LHC’s purpose? One possibility is that since everybody has heard of dark matter, the goal of finding it is easier for scientists to explain to journalists, even though it’s not central. And in turn, it is easier for journalists to explain this goal to readers who don’t care to know the real situation. By the time the story goes to press, all the modifiers and nuances uttered by the scientists are gone, and all that remains is “LHC looking for dark matter”. Well, stay tuned to this blog, and you’ll get a much more accurate story.
Fortunately a much more balanced story did appear in the BBC, due to Pallab Ghosh…, though as usual in Europe, with rather too much supersymmetry and not enough of other approaches to the naturalness problem. Ghosh also does mention what I described in the italicized part of point 3 above — the possibility of what he calls the “wonderfully evocatively named `dark sector’ ”. [Mr. Ghosh: back in 2006, well before these ideas were popular, Kathryn Zurek and I named this a “hidden valley”, potentially relevant either for dark matter or the naturalness problem. We like to think this is a much more evocative name.] A dark sector/hidden valley would involve several types of particles that interact with one another, but interact hardly at all with anything that we and our surroundings are made from. Typically, one of these types of particles could make up dark matter, but the others would unsuitable for making dark matter. So why are these others important? Because if they are produced at the LHC, they may decay in a fashion that is easy to observe — easier than dark matter itself, which simply exits the LHC experiments without a trace, and can only be inferred from something recoiling against it. In other words, if such a dark sector [or more generally, a hidden valley of any type] exists, the best targets for LHC’s experiments (and other experiments, such as APEX or SHiP) are often not the stable particles that could form dark matter but their unstable friends and associates.
But this will all be irrelevant if the collider doesn’t work, so… first things first. Let’s all wish the accelerator physicists success as they gradually bring the newly powerful LHC back into full operation, at a record energy per collision and eventually a record collision rate.