A gear-train for particle physics

It has come under scrutiny at various times by multiple prominent physicists and thinkers, but it’s not hard to see why, when the idea of ‘grand unification’ first set out, it seemed plausible to so many. The first time it was seriously considered was about four decades ago, shortly after physicists had realised that two of the four fundamental forces of nature were in fact a single unified force if you ramped up the energy at which it acted. (electromagnetic + weak = electroweak). The thought that followed was simply logical: what if, at some extremely high energy (like what was in the Big Bang), all four forces unified into one? This was 1974.

There has been no direct evidence of such grand unification yet. Physicists don’t know how the electroweak force will unify with the strong nuclear force – let alone gravity, a problem that actually birthed one of the most powerful mathematical tools in an attempt to solve it. Nonetheless, they think they know the energy at which such grand unification should occur if it does: the Planck scale, around 1019 GeV. This is about as much energy as is contained in a few litres of petrol, but it’s stupefyingly large when you have to accommodate all of it in a particle that’s 10-15 metres wide.

This is where particle accelerators come in. The most powerful of them, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), uses powerful magnetic fields to accelerate protons to close to light-speed, when their energy approaches about 7,000 GeV. But the Planck energy is still 10 million billion orders of magnitude higher, which means it’s not something we might ever be able to attain on Earth. Nonetheless, physicists’ theories show that that’s where all of our physical laws should be created, where the commandments by which all that exists does should be written.

… Or is it?

There are many outstanding problems in particle physics, and physicists are desperate for a solution. They have to find something wrong with what they’ve already done, something new or a way to reinterpret what they already know. The clockwork theory is of the third kind – and its reinterpretation begins by asking physicists to dump the idea that new physics is born only at the Planck scale. So, for example, it suggests that the effects of quantum gravity (a quantum-mechanical description of gravity) needn’t necessarily become apparent only at the Planck scale but at a lower energy itself. But even if it then goes on to solve some problems, the theory threatens to present a new one. Consider: If it’s true that new physics isn’t born at the highest energy possible, then wouldn’t the choice of any energy lower than that just be arbitrary? And if nothing else, nature is not arbitrary.

To its credit, clockwork sidesteps this issue by simply not trying to find ‘special’ energies at which ‘important’ things happen. Its basic premise is that the forces of nature are like a set of interlocking gears moving against each other, transmitting energy – rather potential – from one wheel to the next, magnifying or diminishing the way fundamental particles behave in different contexts. Its supporters at CERN and elsewhere think it can be used to explain some annoying gaps between theory and experiment in particle physics, particularly the naturalness problem.

Before the Higgs boson was discovered, physicists predicted based on the properties of other particles and forces that its mass would be very high. But when the boson’s discovery was confirmed at CERN in January 2013, its mass implied that the universe would have to be “the size of a football” – which is clearly not the case. So why is the Higgs boson’s mass so low, so unnaturally low? Scientists have fronted many new theories that try to solve this problem but their solutions often require the existence of other, hitherto undiscovered particles.

Clockwork’s solution is a way in which the Higgs boson’s interaction with gravity – rather gravity’s associated energy – is mediated by a string of effects described in quantum field theory that tamp down the boson’s mass. In technical parlance, the boson’s mass becomes ‘screened’. An explanation for this that’s both physical and accurate is hard to draw up because of various abstractions. So as University of Bruxelles physicist Daniele Teresi suggests, imagine this series: Χ = 0.5 × 0.5 × 0.5 × 0.5 × … × 0.5. Even if each step reduces Χ’s value by only a half, it is already an eighth after three steps; after four, a sixteenth. So the effect can get quickly drastic because it’s exponential.

And the theory provides a mathematical toolbox that allows for all this to be achieved without the addition of new particles. This is advantageous because it makes clockwork relatively more elegant than another theory that seeks to solve the naturalness problem, called supersymmetry, SUSY for short. Physicists like SUSY also because it allows for a large energy hierarchy: a distribution of particles and processes at energies between electroweak unification and grand unification, instead of leaving the region bizarrely devoid of action like the Standard Model does. But then SUSY predicts the existence of 17 new particles, none of which have been detected yet.

Even more, as Matthew McCullough, one of clockwork’s developers, showed at an ongoing conference in Italy, its solutions for a stationary particle in four dimensions exhibit conceptual similarities to Maxwell’s equations for an electromagnetic wave in a conductor. The existence of such analogues is reassuring because it recalls nature’s tendency to be guided by common principles in diverse contexts.

This isn’t to say clockwork theory is it. As physicist Ben Allanach has written, it is a “new toy” and physicists are still playing with it to solve different problems. Just that in the event that it has an answer to the naturalness problem – as well as to the question why dark matter doesn’t decay, e.g. – it is notable. But is this enough: to say that clockwork theory mops up the math cleanly in a bunch of problems? How do we make sure that this is how nature works?

McCullough thinks there’s one way, using the LHC. Very simplistically: clockwork theory induces fluctuations in the probabilities with which pairs of high-energy photons are created at some energies at the LHC. These should be visible as wavy squiggles in a plot with energy on the x-axis and events on the y-axis. If these plots can be obtained and analysed, and the results agree with clockwork’s predictions, then we will have confirmed what McCullough calls an “irreducible prediction of clockwork gravity”, the case of using the theory to solve the naturalness problem.

To recap: No free parameters (i.e. no new particles), conceptual elegance and familiarity, and finally a concrete and unique prediction. No wonder Allanach thinks clockwork theory inhabits fertile ground. On the other hand, SUSY’s prospects have been bleak since at least 2013 (if not earlier) – and it is one of the more favoured theories among physicists to explain physics beyond the Standard Model, physics we haven’t observed yet but generally believe exists. At the same time, and it bears reiterating, clockwork theory will also have to face down a host of challenges before it can be declared a definitive success. Tik tok tik tok tik tok

The Large Hadron Collider is back online, ready to shift from the “what” of reality to “why”

The world’s single largest science experiment will restart on March 23 after a two-year break. Scientists and administrators at the European Organization for Nuclear Research – known by its French acronym CERN – have announced the status of the agency’s upgrades on its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its readiness for a new phase of experiments running from now until 2018.

Before the experiment was shut down in late 2013, the LHC became famous for helping discover the elusive Higgs boson, a fundamental (that is, indivisible) particle that gives other fundamental particles their mass through a complicated mechanism. The find earned two of the physicists who thought up the mechanism in 1964, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, a Nobel Prize in that year.

Though the LHC had fulfilled one of its more significant goals by finding the Higgs boson, its purpose is far from complete. In its new avatar, the machine boasts of the energy and technical agility necessary to answer questions that current theories of physics are struggling to make sense of.

As Alice Bean, a particle physicist who has worked with the LHC, said, “A whole new energy region will be waiting for us to discover something.”

The finding of the Higgs boson laid to rest speculations of whether such a particle existed and what its properties could be, and validated the currently reigning set of theories that describe how various fundamental particles interact. This is called the Standard Model, and it has been successful in predicting the dynamics of those interactions.

From the what to the why

But having assimilated all this knowledge, what physicists don’t know, but desperately want to, is why those particles’ properties have the values they do. They have realized the implications are numerous and profound: ranging from the possible existence of more fundamental particles we are yet to encounter to the nature of the substance known as dark matter, which makes up a great proportion of matter in the universe while we know next to nothing about it. These mysteries were first conceived to plug gaps in the Standard Model but they have only been widening since.

With an experiment now able to better test theories, physicists have started investigating these gaps. For the LHC, the implication is that in its second edition it will not be looking for something as much as helping scientists decide where to look to start with.

As Tara Shears, a particle physicist at the University of Liverpool, told Nature, “In the first run we had a very strong theoretical steer to look for the Higgs boson. This time we don’t have any signposts that are quite so clear.”

Higher energy, luminosity

The upgrades to the LHC that would unlock new experimental possibilities were evident in early 2012.

The machine works by using powerful electric currents and magnetic fields to accelerate two trains, or beams, of protons in opposite directions, within a ring 27 km long, to almost the speed of light and then colliding them head-on. The result is a particulate fireworks of such high energy that the most rare, short-lived particles are brought into existence before they promptly devolve into lighter, more common particles. Particle detectors straddling the LHC at four points on the ring record these collisions and their effects for study.

So, to boost its performance, upgrades to the LHC were of two kinds: increasing the collision energy inside the ring and increasing the detectors’ abilities to track more numerous and more powerful collisions.

The collision energy has been nearly doubled in its second life, from 7-8 TeV to 13-14 TeV. The frequency of collisions has also been doubled from one set every 50 nanoseconds (billionth of a second) to one every 25 nanoseconds. Steve Myers, CERN’s director for accelerators and technology, had said in December 2012, “More intense beams mean more collisions and a better chance of observing rare phenomena.”

The detectors have received new sensors, neutron shields to protect from radiation damage, cooling systems and superconducting cables. An improved fail-safe system has also been installed to forestall accidents like the one in 2008, when failing to cool a magnet led to a shut-down for eight months.

In all, the upgrades cost approximately $149 million, and will increase CERN’s electricity bill by 20% to $65 million. A “massive debugging exercise” was conducted last week to ensure all of it clicked together.

Going ahead, these new specifications will be leveraged to tackle some of the more outstanding issues in fundamental physics.

CERN listed a few–presumably primary–focus areas. They include investigating if the Higgs boson could betray the existence of undiscovered particles, the particles dark matter could be made of, why the universe today has much more matter than antimatter, and if gravity is so much weaker than other forces because it is leaking into other dimensions.

Stride forward in three frontiers

Physicists are also hopeful for the prospects of discovering a class of particles called supersymmetric partners. The theory that predicts their existence is called supersymmetry. It builds on some of the conclusions of the Standard Model, and offers predictions that plug its holes as well with such mathematical elegance that it has many of the world’s leading physicists enamored. These predictions involve the existence of new particles called partners.

In a neat infographic by Elizabeth Gibney in Nature, she explains that the partner that will be easiest to detect will be the ‘stop squark’ as it is the lightest and can show itself in lower energy collisions.

In all, the LHC’s new avatar marks a big stride forward not just in the energy frontier but also in the intensity and cosmic frontiers. With its ability to produce and track more collisions per second as well as chart the least explored territories of the ancient cosmos, it’d be foolish to think this gigantic machine’s domain is confined to particle physics and couldn’t extend to fuel cells, medical diagnostics or achieving systems-reliability in IT.

Here’s a fitting video released by CERN to mark this momentous occasion in the history of high-energy physics.

Featured image: A view of the LHC. Credit: CERN

Update: After engineers spotted a short-circuit glitch in a cooled part of the LHC on March 21, its restart was postponed from March 23 by a few weeks. However, CERN has assured that its a fully understood problem and that it won’t detract from the experiment’s goals for the year.

A new LHC: 10 things to look out for

Through an extraordinary routine, the most powerful machine built by humankind is slowly but surely gearing up for its relaunch in March 2015. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), straddling the national borders of France and Switzerland, will reawaken after two years of upgrades and fixes to smash protons at nearly twice the energy it did during its first run that ended in March 2012. Here are 10 things to look out for: five upgrades and five possible exciting discoveries.

Technical advancements

  1. Higher collision energy – In its previous run, each beam of protons destined for collision with other beams was accelerated to 3.5-4 TeV. By May 2015, each beam will be accelerated to 6.5-7 TeV. By doubling the collision energy, scientists hope to be able to observe higher-energy phenomena, such as heavier, more elusive particles.
  2. Higher collision frequency – Each beam has bunches of protons that are collided with other oncoming bunches at a fixed frequency. During the previous run, this frequency was once every 50 nanoseconds. In the new run, this will be doubled to once every 25 nanoseconds. With more collisions happening per unit time, rarer phenomena will happen more frequently and become easier to spot.
  3. Higher instantaneous luminosity – This is the detectability of particles per second. It will be increased by 10 times, to 1 × 1034 per cm2 per second. By 2022, engineers will aim to increase it to 7.73 × 1034 per cm2 per second.
  4. New pixel sensors – An extra layer of pixel sensors, to handle the higher luminosity regime, will be added around the beam pipe within the ATLAS and CMS detectors. While the CMS was built with higher luminosities in mind, ATLAS wasn’t, and its pixel sensors are expected to wear out within a year. As an intermediate solution, a temporary layer of sensors will be added to last until 2018.
  5. New neutron shields – Because of the doubled collision energy and frequency, instruments could be damaged by high-energy neutrons flying out of the beam pipe. To prevent this, advanced neutron shields will be screwed on around the pipe.

Research advancements

  1. Dark matter – The LHC is adept at finding particles both fundamental and composite previously unseen before. One area of physics desperately looking for a particle of its own is dark matter. It’s only natural for both quests to converge at the collider. A leader candidate particle for dark matter is the WIMP: weakly-interacting massive particle. If the LHC finds it, or finds something like it, it could be the next big thing after the Higgs boson, perhaps bigger.
  2. Dark energy – The universe is expanding at an accelerating pace. There is a uniform field of energy pervading it throughout that is causing this expansion, called the dark energy field. The source of dark energy’s potential is the vacuum of space, where extremely short-lived particles continuously pop in and out of existence. But to drive the expansion of the entire universe, the vacuum’s potential should be 10120 times what observations show it to be. At the LHC, the study of fundamental particles could drive better understanding of what the vacuum actually holds and where dark energy’s potential comes from.
  3. Supersymmetry – The Standard Model of particle physics defines humankind’s understanding of the behavior of all known fundamental particles. However, some of their properties are puzzling. For example, some natural forces are too strong for no known reason; some particles are too light. For this, physicists have a theory of particulate interactions called supersymmetry, SUSY for short. And SUSY predicts the existence of some particles that don’t exist in the Model yet, called supersymmetric partners. These are heavy particles that could show themselves in the LHC’s new higher-energy regime. Like with the dark matter WIMPs, finding a SUSY particle could by a Nobel Prize-winner.
  4. Higgs boson – One particle that’s too light in the Standard Model is the Higgs boson. As a result, physicists think it might not be the only Higgs boson out there. Perhaps there are others with the same properties but weigh lesser or more.
  5. Antimatter reactions – Among the class of particles called mesons, one – designated B0 – holds the clue to answering a question that has astrophysicists stymied for decades: Why does the universe have more matter than antimatter if, when it first came into existence, there were equal amounts of both? An older result from the LHC shows the B0 meson decays into more matter particles than antimatter ones. Probing further about why this is so will be another prominent quest of the LHC’s.

Bonus: Extra dimensions – Many alternate theories of fundamental particles require the existence of extra dimensions. The way to look for them is to create extremely high energies and then look for particles that might pop into one of the three dimensions we occupy from another that we don’t.

Fabiola Gianotti, the first woman Director-General of CERN

The CERN Council has elected a new Director-General to succeed the incumbent Rolf-Dieter Heuer. Fabiola Gianotti, who served as the ATLAS collaboration’s spokesperson from 2009 to 2013 – a period that included the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson by the ATLAS and CMS experiments – will be the first woman to hold the position. Her mandate begins from January 2016.

A CERN press release announcing the appointment said the “Council converged rapidly in favor of Dr. Gianotti”, implying it was a quick and unanimous decision.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the mammoth particle smasher that produces the collisions that ATLAS, CMS and two other similar collaborations study, is set to restart in January 2015 after a series of upgrades to increase its energy and luminosity. And so Dr. Gianotti’s term will coincide with a distinct phase of science, this one eager for evidence to help answer deeper questions in particle physics – such as the Higgs boson’s mass, the strong force’s strength and dark matter.

Dr. Gianotti will succeed 15 men who, as Director Generals, have been responsible for not simply coordinating the scientific efforts stemming from CERN but also guiding research priorities and practices. They have effectively set the various agendas that the world’s preeminent nuclear physics lab has chosen to pursue since its establishment in 1945.

In fact, the title of ‘spokesperson’, which Dr. Gianotti held for the ATLAS collaboration for four years until 2013, is itself deceptively uncomplicated. The spokesperson not only speaks for the collaboration but is also the effective project manager who plays an important role when decisions are made about what measurements to focus on and what questions to answer. When on July 4, 2012, the discovery of a Higgs-boson-like particle was announced, results from the ATLAS particle-detector – and therefore Dr. Gianotti’s affable leadership – were instrumental in getting that far, and in getting Peter Higgs and Francois Englert their 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.

Earlier this year, she had likened her job to “a great scientific adventure”, and but “also a great human adventure”, to CNN. To guide the aspirations and creativity of 3,000 engineers and physicists without attenuation1 of productivity or will must have indeed been so.

That she will be the first woman to become the DG of CERN can’t escape attention either, especially at a time when women’s participation in STEM research seems to be on the decline and sexism in science is being recognized as a prevalent issue. Dr. Gianotti will no doubt make a strong role model for a field that is only 25% women. There will also be much to learn from her past, from the time she chose to become a physicist after learning about Albert Einstein’s idea of quantum mechanics to explain the photoelectric effect. She joined CERN while working toward her PhD from the University of Milan. She was 25, it was 1987 and the W/Z bosons had just been discovered at the facility’s UA1 and UA2 collaborations. Dr. Gianotti would join the latter.

It was an exciting time to be a physicist as well as exacting. Planning for the LHC would begin in that decade and launch one of the world’s largest scientific collaborations with it. The success of a scientist would start to demand not just research excellence but also a flair for public relations, bureaucratic diplomacy and the acuity necessary to manage public funds in the billions from different countries. Dr. Gianotti would go on to wear all these hats even as she started work in calorimetry at the LHC in 1990, on the ATLAS detector in 1992, and on the search for supersymmetric (‘new physics’) particles in 1996.

Her admiration for the humanities has been known to play its part in shaping her thoughts about the universe at its most granular. She has a professional music diploma from the Milan Conservatory and often unwinds at the end of a long day with a session on the piano. Her fifth-floor home in Geneva sometimes affords her a view of Mont Blanc, and she often enjoys long walks in the mountains. In the same interview, given to Financial Times in 2013, she adds,

There are many links between physics and art. For me, physics and nature have very nice foundations from an aesthetic point of view, and at the same time art is based on physics and mathematical principle. If you build a nice building, you have to build it with some criteria because otherwise it collapses.2

Her success in leading the ATLAS collaboration, and becoming the veritable face of the hunt for the Higgs boson, have catapulted her to being the next DG of CERN. At the same time, it must feel reassuring3 that as physicists embark on a new era of research that requires just as much ingenuity in formulating new ideas as in testing them, an era “where logic based on past theories does not guide us”4, Fabiola Gianotti’s research excellence, administrative astuteness and creative intuition is now there to guide them.

Good luck, Dr. Gianotti!


1Recommended read: Who really found the Higgs boson? The real genius in the Nobel Prize-winning discovery is not who you think it is. Nautilus, Issue 18.

2I must mention that it’s weird that someone which such strong aesthetic foundations used Comic Sans MS as the font of choice for her presentation at the CERN seminar in 2012 that announced the discovery of a Higgs-like-boson. It was probably the beginning of Comic Sans’s comeback.

3Though I am no physicist.

4In the words of Academy Award-winning film editor Walter S. Murch.

Featured image credit: Claudia Marcelloni/CERN

New Higgs results show signs of SUSY

Two years ago, physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider first announced the discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle, setting the high-energy physics community atwitter. And it was only a couple weeks ago that physicists also announced that the particle was definitely the one predicted by the sturdy Standard Model of particle physics, the theory that governs the Higgs boson’s properties and behavior.

But new results from the ongoing International Conference on High Energy Physics in Valencia, Spain, could add a twist to this plot. Physicists announced that they had evidence – albeit not strong enough – that the Higgs boson was showing signs of disobeying the model.

Members of the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, who work with the detectors of that name, said they had results showing the Higgs boson was decaying into a pair of particles called W bosons at a rate some 20% higher than predicted by the Standard Model. This non-compliance will be a breath of fresh air for physicists who have been faithful to a potent but as yet unobserved theory of new physics called supersymmetry, in short and fondly SUSY.

The W boson mediates the decay of radioactive substances in nature. At sufficiently high energies, such as produced inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), these bosons are produced by a multitude of particle interactions. Since their discovery in 1983, they have been widely studied. In these circumstances, announcing signs of SUSY through Higgs decays into WW pairs provides little room for uncertainties.

SUSY predicts that for every fermion, or matter particle, of the Standard Model there is a partner particle that is a boson called a sfermion. Conversely, for every boson, or force particle, of the Standard Model there is a partner particle that is a fermion called a bosino. Physicists who believe SUSY is a plausible theory use these extra particles to solve problems that the Standard Model can’t. One of them is that of dark matter; another is to explain why the Higgs boson weighs much lighter than it should.

Jong Soo Kim et al have described how the anomalous decay rates could be explained using a simple version of SUSY in a pre-print paper uploaded to arXiv on June 27. The paper is playfully titled ‘Stop that ambulance! New physics at the LHC?‘. The ‘Stop’ is a reference to the name of the suppersymmetric partner of the top quark. The authors describe how a combination of supersymmetric particles including the stop boson could explain the new results with only a 1-in-370 chance of error. Even though this means physicists have a confidence of 99.7% in the results, it’s still not high to claim evidence. When the LHC comes online in 2015, physicists will be eager to put these results to the test.

The paper’s title might also refer to a comment that physicist Chris Parkes, spokesperson for the UK participation in the LHCB experiment at the LHC, made to the BBC during the Hadron Collider Physics Symposium in Kyoto, Japan, in November 2012. Results had been announced of the B_s meson decaying into lighter particles at a rate predicted exactly by the Standard Model, nudging SUSY further toward impossibility. Parkes had said, “Supersymmetry may not be dead but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital.”

The hunt for supersymmetry: Reviewing the first run – 2

I’d linked to a preprint paper [PDF] on arXiv a couple days ago that had summarized the search for Supersymmetry (Susy) from the first run of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I’d written to one of the paper’s authors, Pascal Pralavorio at CERN, seeking some insights into his summary, but unfortunately he couldn’t reply by the time I’d published the post. He replied this morning and I’ve summed them up.

Pascal says physicists trained their detectors for “the simplest extension of the Standard Model” using supersymmetric principles called the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model (MSSM), formulated in the early 1980s. This meant they were looking for a total of 35 particles. In the first run, the LHC operated at two different energies: first at 7 TeV (at a luminosity of 5 fb-1), then at 8 TeV (at 20 fb-1; explainer here). The data was garnered from both the ATLAS and CMS detectors.

In all, they found nothing. As a result, as Pascal says, “When you find nothing, you don’t know if you are close or far from it!

His paper has an interesting chart that summarized the results for the search for Susy from Run 1. It is actually a superimposition of two charts. One shows the different Standard Model processes (particle productions, particle decays, etc.) at different energies (200-1,600 GeV). The second shows the Susy processes that are thought to occur at these energies.

Cross sections of several SUSY production channels, superimposed with Standard Model process at s = 8 TeV. The right-handed axis indicates the number of events for 20/fb.
Cross sections of several SUSY production channels, superimposed with Standard Model process at s = 8 TeV. The right-handed axis indicates the number of events for 20/fb.

The cross-section of the chart is the probability of an event-type to appear during a proton-proton collision. What you can see from this plot is the ratio of probabilities. For example, stop-stop* (the top quark’s Susy partner particle and anti-particle, respectively) production with a mass of 400 GeV is 1010 (10 billion) less probable than inclusive di-jet events (a Standard Model process). “In other words,” Pascal says, it is “very hard to find” a Susy process while Standard Model processes are on, but it is “possible for highly trained particle physics” to get there.

Of course, none of this means physicists aren’t open to the possibility of there being a theory (and corresponding particles out there) that even Susy mightn’t be able to explain. The most popular among such theories is “the presence of a “possible extra special dimension” on top of the three that we already know. “We will of course continue to look for it and for supersymmetry in the second run.”

The hunt for supersymmetry: Reviewing the first run

What do dark matter, Higgs bosons, the electron dipole moment, topological superconductors and quantum loops have in common? These are exotic entities that scientists have been using to solve some longstanding problems in fundamental physics. Specifically, by studying these entities, they expect to discover new ingredients of the universe that will help them answer why it is the way it is. These ingredients could in come in a staggering variety, so it is important for scientists to narrow down what they’re looking for – which brings us to the question of why these entities are being studied. A brief summary:

  1. Dark matter is an exotic form of matter that is thought to interact with normal matter only through the gravitational force. Its existence was hypothesized in 1932-1933. Its exact nature is yet to be understood.
  2. Quantum loops refer to an intricate way in which some heavier particles decay into sets of lighter particles, involving the exchange of some other extremely short-lived particles. They have been theoretically known to exist for many decades.
  3. Topological superconductors are exotic materials that, under certain conditions, behave like superconductors on their surface and as insulators underneath. They were discovered fairly recently, around 2007, and how they manage to be this way is not fully understood.
  4. The Higgs boson‘s discovery was announced in July 2012 (and verified by March-June 2013). Math worked out on paper predicts that its mass ought to have been very high – but it was found to be much lower.
  5. The electron dipole moment is a measure of how spherical the electron is. Specifically, the EDM denotes how evenly the electron’s negative charge is distributed around it. While the well-understood laws of nature don’t prevent the charge from being uneven, they restrict the amount of unevenness to a very small value. The most precise measurement of this value to date was published in December 2013.

Clearly, these are five phenomena whose identities are incomplete. But more specifically, scientists have found a way to use advanced mathematics to complete all these identities with one encompassing theory called Supersymmetry (Susy). Unfortunately for them, the mathematics refuses to become real, i.e. scientists have failed to find evidence of Susy in experiments. Actually, that might be an overstatement: different experiments are at different stages of looking for Susy at work in giving these ‘freaks of nature’ a physical identity. On the other hand, it has been a few years since some of these experiments commenced – some of them are quite powerful indeed – and the only positive results they have had have been to say Susy cannot be found in this or that range.

But if signs of Susy are found, then the world of physics will be in tumult – in a good way, of course. It will get to replace an old theory called the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is the set of mathematical tools and techniques used to understand how fundamental particles make up different objects, what particles our universe is made of, how quantum loops work, how the Higgs boson could have formed, etc. But it has no answers for why there is dark matter, why the electron is allowed to have that small dipole moment, why topological superconductors work the way they do, why the Higgs boson’s mass is so low, etc.

Early next year, physicists will turn to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – which helped discover the Higgs boson in 2012 – after it wakes up from its two-year slumber to help find Susy, too. This LHC of 2015 will be way more powerful than the one that went dormant in early 2013 thanks to a slew of upgrades. Hopefully it will not disappoint, building on what it has managed to deliver for Susy until now. In fact, on April 28, 2014, two physicists from CERN submitted a preprint paper to the arXiv server summarizing the lessons for Susy from the LHC after the first run.

The hunt for supersymmetry: Is a choke on the cards?

The Copernican
April 28, 2014

“So irrelevant is the philosophy of quantum mechanics to its use that one begins to suspect that all the deep questions are really empty…”

— Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature (1992)

On a slightly humid yet clement January evening in 2013, a theoretical physicist named George Sterman was in Chennai to attend a conference at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. After the last talk of the day, he had strolled out of the auditorium and was mingling with students when I managed to get a few minutes with him. I asked for an interview and he agreed.

After some coffee, we seated ourselves at a kiosk in the middle of the lawn, the sun was setting, and mosquitoes abounded. Sterman was a particle physicist, so I opened with the customary question about the Higgs boson and expected him to swat it away with snowclones of the time like “fantastic”, “tribute to 50 years of mathematics” and “long-awaited”. He did say those things, but then he also expressed some disappointment.

George Sterman is distinguished for his work in quantum chromodynamics (QCD), for which he won the prestigious J.J. Sakurai Prize in 2003. QCD is a branch of physics that deals with particles that have a property called colour charge. Quarks and gluons are examples of such particles; these two together with electrons are the proverbial building blocks of matter. Sterman has been a physicist since the 1970s, the early years as far as experimental particle physics research is concerned.

The Standard Model disappoints

Over the last four or so decades, remarkable people like him have helped construct a model of laws, principles and theories that the rigours of this field are sustaining on, called the Standard Model of particle physics. And it was the reason Sterman was disappointed.

According to the Standard Model, Sterman explained, “if we gave our any reasonable estimate of what the mass of the Higgs particle should be, it should by all rights be huge! It should be as heavy as what we call the Planck mass.”

But it isn’t. The Higgs mass is around 125 GeV (GeV being a unit of energy that corresponds to certain values of a particle’s mass) – compare it with the proton that weighs 0.938 GeV. On the other hand, the Planck mass is 10^19 GeV. Seventeen orders of magnitude lie in between. According to Sterman, this isn’t natural. The question is why does there have to be such a big difference in what we can say the mass could be and what we find it to be.

Martinus Veltman, a Dutch theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2003 for his work in particle physics, painted a starker picture, “Since the energy of the Higgs [field] is distributed all over the universe, it should contribute to the curvature of space; if you do the calculation, the universe would have to curve to the size of a football,” in an interview to Nature in 2013.

Evidently, the Standard Model has many loose ends, and explaining the mass of the Higgs boson is only one of them. Another example is why it has no answer for what dark matter is and why it behaves the way it does. Yet another example is why the four fundamental forces of nature are not of the same order of magnitude.

An alternative

Thanks to the Standard Model, some mysteries have been solved, but other mysteries have come and are coming to light – in much the same way Isaac Newton’s ideas struggled to remain applicable in the troubled world of physics in the early 20th century. It seems history repeats itself through crises.

Fortunately, physicists in 1971-1972 had begun to piece together an alternative theory called supersymmetry, Susy for short. At the time, it was an alternative way of interpreting how emerging facts could be related to each other. Today, however, Susy is a more encompassing successor to the throne that the Standard Model occupies, a sort of mathematical framework in which the predictions of the Model still hold but no longer have those loose ends. And Susy’s USP is… well, that it doesn’t disappoint Sterman.

“There’s a reason why so many people felt so confident about supersymmetry,” he said. “It wasn’t just that it’s a beautiful theory – which it is – or that it engages and challenges the most mathematically oriented among physicists, but in another sense in which it appeared to be necessary. There’s this subtle concept that goes by the name of naturalness…”

And don’t yet look up ‘naturalness’ on Wikipedia because, for once, here is something so simple, so elegant, that it is precisely what its name implies. Naturalness is the idea that, for example, the Higgs boson is so lightweight because something out there is keeping it from being heavy. Naturalness is the idea that, in a given setting, the forces of nature all act in equal measure. Naturalness is the idea that causes seem natural, and logically plausible, without having to be fine-tuned in order to explain their effects. In other words, Susy, through its naturalness, makes possible a domesticated world, one without sudden, unexpected deviations from what common sense (a sophisticated one, anyway) would dictate.

To understand how it works, let us revisit the basics. Our observable universe plays host to two kinds of fundamental particles, which are packets of some well-defined amount of energy. The fermions, named for Enrico Fermi, are the matter particles. Things are made of them. The bosons, named for Satyendra Bose, are the force particles. Things interact with each other by using them as messengers. The Standard Model tells us how bosons and fermions will behave in a variety of situations.

However, the Model has no answers for why bosons and fermions weigh as much as they do, or come in as many varieties as they do. These are deeper questions that go beyond simply what we can observe. These are questions whose answers demand that we interpret what we know, that we explore the wisdom of nature that underlies our knowledge of it. To know this why, physicists investigated phenomena that lie beyond the Standard Model’s jurisdiction.

The search

One such place is actually nothingness, i.e. the quantum vacuum of deep space, where particles called virtual particles continuously wink in and out of existence. But even with their brief life-spans, they play a significant role in mediating the interactions between different particles. You will remember having studied in class IX that like charges repel each other. What you probably weren’t told is that the repulsive force between them is mediated by the exchange of virtual photons.

Curiously, these “virtual interactions” don’t proliferate haphazardly. Virtual particles don’t continuously “talk” to the electron or clump around the Higgs boson. If this happened, mass would accrue at a point out of thin air, and black holes would be popping up all around us. Why this doesn’t happen, physicists think, is because of Susy, whose invisible hand could be staying chaos from dominating our universe.

The way it does this is by invoking quantum mechanics, and conceiving that there is another dimension called superspace. In superspace, the bosons and fermions in the dimensions familiar to us behave differently, the laws conceived such that they restrict the random formation of black holes, for starters. In the May 2014 issue of Scientific American, Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu describe how things work in superspace:

“If you are a boson, taking one step in [superspace] turns you into a fermion; if you are a fermion, one step in [superspace] turns you into a boson. Furthermore, if you take one step in [superspace] and then step back again, you will find that you have also moved in ordinary space or time by some minimum amount. Thus, motion in [superspace] is tied up, in a complicated way, with ordinary motion.”

The presence of this dimension implies that all bosons and fermions have a corresponding particle called a superpartner particle. For each boson, there is a superpartner fermion called a bosino; for each fermion, there is a superpartner boson called a sfermion (why the confusing titles, though?).

Physicists are hoping this supersymmetric world exists. If it does, they will have found tools to explain the Higgs boson’s mass, the difference in strengths of the four fundamental forces, what dark matter could be, and a swarm of other nagging issues the Standard Model fails to resolve. Unfortunately, this is where Susy’s credit-worthiness runs into trouble.

No signs

“Experiment will always be the ultimate arbiter, so long as it’s science we’re doing.”

— Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill, Beyond the Higgs Boson (2013)

Since the first pieces of the Standard Model were brought together in the 1960s, researchers have run repeated tests to check if what it predicts were true. Each time, the Model has stood up to its promise and yielded accurate results. It withstood the test of time – a criterion it shares with the Nobel Prize for physics, which physicists working with the Model have won at least 15 times since 1957.

Susy, on the other hand, is still waiting for confirmation. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle physics experiment, ran its first round of experiments from 2009 to 2012, and found no signs of sfermions or bosinos. In fact, it has succeeded on the other hand to narrow the gaps in the Standard Model where Susy could be found. While the non-empty emptiness of quantum vacuum opened a small window into the world of Susy, a window through which we could stick a mathematical arm out and say “This is why black holes don’t just pop up”, the Model has persistently puttied every other crack we hound after.

An interesting quote comes to mind about Susy’s health. In November 2012, at the Hadron Collider Physics Symposium in Kyoto, Japan, physicists presented evidence of a particle decay that happens so rarely that only the LHC could have spotted it. The Standard Model predicts that every time the B_s (pronounced “Bee-sub-ess”) meson decays into a set of lighter particles, there is a small chance that it decays into two muons. The steps in which this happens is intricate, involving a process called a quantum loop.

What next?

“SUSY has been expected for a long time, but no trace has been found so far… Like the plot of the excellent movie ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)”

— Andy Parker, Cambridge University

Susy predicts that some supersymmetric particles should show themselves during the quantum loop, but no signs of them were found. On the other hand, the rate of B_s decays into two muons was consistent with the Model’s predictions. Prof. Chris Parkes, a British physicist, had then told BBC News: “Supersymmetry may not be dead but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital.” Why not: Our peek of the supersymmetric universe eludes us, and if the LHC can’t find it, what will?

Then again, it took us many centuries to find the electron, and then many decades to find anti-particles. Why should we hurry now? After all, as Dr. Rahul Sinha from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences told me after the Symposium had concluded, “a conclusive statement cannot be made as yet”. At this stage, even waiting for many years might not be necessary. The LHC is set to reawaken around January 2015 after a series of upgrades that will let the machine deliver 10 times more particle collisions per second per unit area. Mayhap a superpartner particle can be found lurking in this profusion by, say, 2017.

There are also plans for other more specialised colliders, such as Project X in the USA, which India has expressed interest in formally cooperating with. X, proposed to be built at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, Illinois, will produce high intensity proton beams to investigate a variety of hitherto unexplored realms. One of them is to produce heavy short-lived isotopes of elements like radium or francium, and use them to study if the electron has a dipole moment, or a pronounced negative charge along one direction, which Susy allows for.

(Moreover, if Project X is realised it could prove extra-useful for India because it makes possible a new kind of nuclear reactor design, called the accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor, which operates without a core of critical-mass radioactive fuel, rendering impossible accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima, while also being capable of inducing fission reactions using lighter fuel like thorium.)

Yet another avenue to explore Susy would be looking for dark matter particles using highly sensitive particle detectors such as LUX, XENON1T and CDMS. According to some supersymmetric models, the lightest Susy particles could actually be dark matter particles, so if a few are spotted and studied, they could buffet this theory’s sagging credence.

… which serves to remind us that this excitement could cut the other way, too. What if the LHC in its advanced avatar is still unable to find evidence of Susy? In fact, the Advanced Cold Molecule Electron group at Harvard University announced in December 2013 that they were able to experimentally rule out that they electron had a dipole moment with the highest precision attained to date. After such results, physicists will have to try and rework the theory, or perhaps zero in on other aspects of it that can be investigated by the LHC or Project X or other colliders.

But at the end of the day, there is also the romance of it all. It took George Sterman many years to find a theory as elegant and straightforward as Susy – an island of orderliness in the insane sea of quantum mechanics. How quickly would he give it up?

O Hunter, snare me his shadow!
O Nightingale, catch me his strain!
Else moonstruck with music and madness
I track him in vain!

— Oscar Wilde, In The Forest

Window for an advanced theory of particles closes further

A version of this article, as written by me, appeared in The Hindu on November 22, 2012.

On November 12, at the first day of the Hadron Collider Physics Symposium at Kyoto, Japan, researchers presented a handful of results that constrained the number of hiding places for a new theory of physics long believed to be promising.

Members of the team from the LHCb detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment located on the border of France and Switzerland provided evidence of a very rare particle-decay. The rate of the decay process was in fair agreement with an older theory of particles’ properties, called the Standard Model (SM), and deviated from the new theory, called Supersymmetry.

“Theorists have calculated that, in the Standard Model, this decay should occur about 3 times in every billion total decays of the particle,” announced Pierluigi Campana, LHCb spokesperson. “This first measurement gives a value of around 3.2 per billion, which is in very good agreement with the prediction.”

The result was presented at the 3.5-sigma confidence level, which corresponds to an error rate of 1-in-2,000. While not strong enough to claim discovery, it is valid as evidence.

The particle, called a Bsmeson, decayed from a bottom antiquark and strange quark pair into two muons. According to the SM, this is a complex and indirect decay process: the quarks exchange a W boson particle, turn into a top-antitop quark pair, which then decays into a Z boson or a Higgs boson. The boson then decays to two muons.

This indirect decay is called a quantum loop, and advanced theories like Supersymmetry predict new, short-lived particles to appear in such loops. The LHCb, which detected the decays, reported no such new particles.

The solid blue line shows post-decay muons from all events, and the red dotted line shows the muon-decay event from the B(s)0 meson. Because of a strong agreement with the SM, SUSY may as well abandon this bastion.

At the same time, in June 2011, the LHCb had announced that it had spotted hints of supersymmetric particles at 3.9-sigma. Thus, scientists will continue to conduct tests until they can stack 3.5 million-to-1 odds for or against Supersymmetry to close the case.

As Prof. Chris Parkes, spokesperson for the UK participation in the LHCb experiment, told BBC News: “Supersymmetry may not be dead but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital.”

The symposium, which concluded on November 16, also saw the release of the first batch of data generated in search of the Higgs boson since the initial announcement on July 4 this year.

The LHC can’t observe the Higgs boson directly because it quickly decays into lighter particles. So, physicists count up the lighter particles and try to see if some of those could have come from a momentarily existent Higgs.

These are still early days, but the data seems consistent with the predicted properties of the elusive particle, giving further strength to the validity of the SM.

Dr. Rahul Sinha, a physicist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, said, “So far there is nothing in the Higgs data that indicates that it is not the Higgs of Standard Model, but a conclusive statement cannot be made as yet.”

The scientific community, however, is disappointed as there are fewer channels for new physics to occur. While the SM is fairly consistent with experimental findings, it is still unable to explain some fundamental problems.

One, called the hierarchy problem, asks why some particles are much heavier than others. Supersymmetry is theoretically equipped to provide the answer, but experimental findings are only thinning down its chances.

Commenting on the results, Dr. G. Rajasekaran, scientific adviser to the India-based Neutrino Observatory being built at Theni, asked for patience. “Supersymmetry implies the existence of a whole new world of particles equaling our known world. Remember, we took a hundred years to discover the known particles starting with the electron.”

With each such tightening of the leash, physicists return to the drawing board and consider new possibilities from scratch. At the same time, they also hope that the initial results are wrong. “We now plan to continue analysing data to improve the accuracy of this measurement and others which could show effects of new physics,” said Campana.

So, while the area where a chink might be found in the SM armour is getting smaller, there is hope that there is a chink somewhere nonetheless.

Signs of a slowdown

The way ahead for particle physics seems dully lit after CERN’s fourth-of-July firecracker. The Higgs announcement got everyone in the physics community excited – and spurred a frenzied submission of pre-prints all rushing to explain the particle’s properties. However, that excitement quickly died out after ICHEP ’12 was presented with nothing significant, even with anything a fraction as significant as the ATLAS/CMS results.

(L-R) Gianotti, Heuer & Incandela

Even so, I suppose we must wait at least another 3 months before a a conclusive Higgs-centric theory emerges that completely integrates the Higgs mechanism with the extant Standard Model.

The spotting of the elusive boson – or an impostor – closes a decades-old chapter in particle physics, but does almost nothing in pointing the way ahead apart from verifying the process of mass-formation. Even theoretically, the presence of SM quadratic divergences in the mass of the Higgs boson prove a resilient barrier to correct. How the Higgs field will be used as a tool in detecting other particles and the properties of other entities is altogether unclear.

The tricky part lies in working out the intricacies of the hypotheses that promise to point the way ahead. The most dominant amongst them is supersymmetry (SUSY). In fact, hints of existence of supersymmetric partners were recorded when the LHCb detector at the LHC spotted evidence of CP-violation in muon-decay events (the latter at 3.9σ). At the same time, the physicists I’m in touch with at IMS point out that rigid restrictions have been instituted on the discovery of sfermions and bosinos.

The energies at which these partners could be found are beyond those achievable by the LHC, let alone the luminosity. More, any favourable-looking ATLAS/CMS SUSY-results – which are simply interpretations of strange events – are definitely applicable only in narrow and very special scenarios. Such a condition is inadmissible when we’re actually in the hunt for frameworks that could explain grander phenomena. Like the link itself says,

“The searches leave little room for SUSY inside the reach of the existing data.”

Despite this bleak outlook, there is still a possibility that SUSY may stand verified in the future. Right now: “Could SUSY be masked behind general gauge mediation, R-parity violation or gauge-mediated SUSY-breaking” is the question (gauge-mediated SUSY-breaking (GMSB) is when some hidden sector breaks SUSY and communicates the products to the SM via messenger fields). Also, ZEUS/DESY results (generated by e-p DIS studies) are currently being interpreted.

However, everyone knows that between now and a future that contains a verified-SUSY, hundreds of financial appeals stand in the way. 😀 This is a typical time of slowdown – a time we must use for open-minded hypothesizing, discussion, careful verification, and, importantly, honest correction.

After the Higgs-boson-like particle, what's next?

This article, as written by me, appeared in print in The Hindu on July 5, 2012.

The ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) collaboration at CERN has announced the sighting of a Higgs boson-like particle in the energy window of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV. The observation has been made with a statistical significance of 5 sigma. This means the chances of error in their measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery and publish papers detailing the efforts in the hunt.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN since 2009, said at the special conference called by CERN in Geneva, “It was a global effort, it is a global effort. It is a global success.” He expressed great optimism and concluded the conference saying this was “only the beginning.”

With this result, collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the atom-smashing machine, have vastly improved on their previous announcement on December 13, 2011, where the chance of an error was 1-in-50 for similar sightings.

A screenshot from the Dec 13, 2011, presentation by Fabiola Gianotti, leader of the ATLAS collaboration, that shows a global statistical significance of 2.3 sigma, which translates to a 1-in-50 chance of the result being erroneous.

Another collaboration, called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), announced the mass of the Higgs-like particle with a 4.9 sigma result. While insufficient to claim a discovery, it does indicate only a one-in-two-million chance of error.

Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, added, “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never done before.”

The LHC will continue to run its experiments so that results revealed on Wednesday can be revalidated before it shuts down at the end of the year for maintenance. Even so, by 2013, scientists, such as Dr. Rahul Sinha, a participant of the Belle Collaboration in Japan, are confident that a conclusive result will be out.

“The LHC has the highest beam energy in the world now. The experiment was designed to yield quick results. With its high luminosity, it quickly narrowed down the energy-ranges. I’m sure that by the end of the year, we will have a definite word on the Higgs boson’s properties,” he said.

However, even though the Standard Model, the framework of all fundamental particles and the dominating explanatory model in physics today, predicted the particle’s existence, slight deviations have been observed in terms of the particle’s predicted mass. Even more: zeroing in on the mass of the Higgs-like particle doesn’t mean the model is complete when, in fact, it is far from.

While an answer to the question of mass formation took 50 years to be reached, physicists are yet to understand many phenomena. For instance, why aren’t the four fundamental forces of nature equally strong?

The weak, nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces were born in the first few moments succeeding the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago. Of these, the weak force is, for some reason, almost 1 billion, trillion, trillion times stronger than the gravitational force! Called the hierarchy problem, it evades a Standard Model explanation.

In response, many theories were proposed. One, called supersymmetry (SUSY), proposed that all fermions, which are particles with half-integer spin, were paired with a corresponding boson, or particles with integer spin. Particle spin is the term quantum mechanics attributes to the particle’s rotation around an axis.

Technicolor was the second framework. It rejects the Higgs mechanism, a process through which the Higgs boson couples stronger with some particles and weaker with others, making them heavier and lighter, respectively.

Instead, it proposes a new form of interaction with initially-massless fermions. The short-lived particles required to certify this framework are accessible at the LHC. Now, with a Higgs-like particle having been spotted with a significant confidence level, the future of Technicolor seems uncertain.

However, “significant constraints” have been imposed on the validity of these and such theories, labeled New Physics, according to Prof. M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), whose current research focuses on high-energy physics.

Some other important questions include why there is more matter than antimatter in this universe, why fundamental particles manifest in three generations and not more or fewer, and the masses of the weakly-interacting neutrinos. State-of-the-art technology worldwide has helped physicists design experiments to study each of these problems better.

For example, the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), under construction in Theni, will house the world’s largest static particle detector to study atmospheric neutrinos. Equipped with its giant iron-calorimeter (ICAL) detector, physicists aim to discover which neutrinos are heavier and which lighter.

The LHC currently operates at the Energy Frontier, with high-energy being the defining constraint on experiments. Two other frontiers, Intensity and Cosmic, are also seeing progress. Project X, a proposed proton accelerator at Fermilab in Chicago, Illinois, will push the boundaries of the Intensity Frontier by trying to look for ultra-rare process. On the Cosmic Frontier, dark matter holds the greatest focus.

After the Higgs-boson-like particle, what’s next?

This article, as written by me, appeared in print in The Hindu on July 5, 2012.

The ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) collaboration at CERN has announced the sighting of a Higgs boson-like particle in the energy window of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV. The observation has been made with a statistical significance of 5 sigma. This means the chances of error in their measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery and publish papers detailing the efforts in the hunt.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN since 2009, said at the special conference called by CERN in Geneva, “It was a global effort, it is a global effort. It is a global success.” He expressed great optimism and concluded the conference saying this was “only the beginning.”

With this result, collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the atom-smashing machine, have vastly improved on their previous announcement on December 13, 2011, where the chance of an error was 1-in-50 for similar sightings.

A screenshot from the Dec 13, 2011, presentation by Fabiola Gianotti, leader of the ATLAS collaboration, that shows a global statistical significance of 2.3 sigma, which translates to a 1-in-50 chance of the result being erroneous.

Another collaboration, called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), announced the mass of the Higgs-like particle with a 4.9 sigma result. While insufficient to claim a discovery, it does indicate only a one-in-two-million chance of error.

Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, added, “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never done before.”

The LHC will continue to run its experiments so that results revealed on Wednesday can be revalidated before it shuts down at the end of the year for maintenance. Even so, by 2013, scientists, such as Dr. Rahul Sinha, a participant of the Belle Collaboration in Japan, are confident that a conclusive result will be out.

“The LHC has the highest beam energy in the world now. The experiment was designed to yield quick results. With its high luminosity, it quickly narrowed down the energy-ranges. I’m sure that by the end of the year, we will have a definite word on the Higgs boson’s properties,” he said.

However, even though the Standard Model, the framework of all fundamental particles and the dominating explanatory model in physics today, predicted the particle’s existence, slight deviations have been observed in terms of the particle’s predicted mass. Even more: zeroing in on the mass of the Higgs-like particle doesn’t mean the model is complete when, in fact, it is far from.

While an answer to the question of mass formation took 50 years to be reached, physicists are yet to understand many phenomena. For instance, why aren’t the four fundamental forces of nature equally strong?

The weak, nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces were born in the first few moments succeeding the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago. Of these, the weak force is, for some reason, almost 1 billion, trillion, trillion times stronger than the gravitational force! Called the hierarchy problem, it evades a Standard Model explanation.

In response, many theories were proposed. One, called supersymmetry (SUSY), proposed that all fermions, which are particles with half-integer spin, were paired with a corresponding boson, or particles with integer spin. Particle spin is the term quantum mechanics attributes to the particle’s rotation around an axis.

Technicolor was the second framework. It rejects the Higgs mechanism, a process through which the Higgs boson couples stronger with some particles and weaker with others, making them heavier and lighter, respectively.

Instead, it proposes a new form of interaction with initially-massless fermions. The short-lived particles required to certify this framework are accessible at the LHC. Now, with a Higgs-like particle having been spotted with a significant confidence level, the future of Technicolor seems uncertain.

However, “significant constraints” have been imposed on the validity of these and such theories, labeled New Physics, according to Prof. M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), whose current research focuses on high-energy physics.

Some other important questions include why there is more matter than antimatter in this universe, why fundamental particles manifest in three generations and not more or fewer, and the masses of the weakly-interacting neutrinos. State-of-the-art technology worldwide has helped physicists design experiments to study each of these problems better.

For example, the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), under construction in Theni, will house the world’s largest static particle detector to study atmospheric neutrinos. Equipped with its giant iron-calorimeter (ICAL) detector, physicists aim to discover which neutrinos are heavier and which lighter.

The LHC currently operates at the Energy Frontier, with high-energy being the defining constraint on experiments. Two other frontiers, Intensity and Cosmic, are also seeing progress. Project X, a proposed proton accelerator at Fermilab in Chicago, Illinois, will push the boundaries of the Intensity Frontier by trying to look for ultra-rare process. On the Cosmic Frontier, dark matter holds the greatest focus.