How the new Large Hadron Collider experiments could change physics forever
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How the new Large Hadron Collider experiments could change physics forever

AFTER A THREE-YEAR SLEEP, the world’s largest particle collider has awoken and is ready to assist physicists in exploring the extreme limits of science, including the probable presence of a mysterious fifth force of nature.

Since 2007, Sam Harper has worked as a particle physicist and collaborator on the LHC’s CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment. He claims that modifications to the collider over the last three years have brought scientists to the brink of discovering revelations that could forever change our understanding of the smallest parts of our cosmos.

“We’re really excited about following up on [previous] anomalies,” Harper tells Inverse. “[But,] we are also really nervous to get everything correct.”

WHAT IS THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER?

The LHC is the world’s largest (almost 16-mile-long) and most powerful particle accelerator, teetering between the borders of France and Switzerland. This massive donut-shaped collider smashes known particles together at extremely high energies using superconducting magnets and proton beams (e.g., 13.6 trillion electron volts).

When converted to more common units of energy, such as watts or joules, this figure is insufficient to power a 100-watt light bulb for one hour (the LHC energy is equivalent to around 2.18 10-6 Joules, but a 100-W bulb requires 360,000 Joules for one hour of light).

But don’t be fooled: while that may not seem like much energy for a relatively heavy object like a lightbulb, it may propel exceedingly light particles to speeds just below the speed of light.

Detectors sprinkled throughout the loop then collect data from these encounters to watch as particles break up into smaller bits, revealing previously unknown physics. These parts can contain quarks or even a type of particles known as bosons. Bosons are an ultra-light particle family that includes photons and is responsible for the creation of forces between particles, such as the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism. In the case of the well-known Higgs boson, it is even accountable for particle mass.

Harper claims that, aside from the excitement and fascination that comes with smashing things together, scientists utilize the LHC to investigate the validity of particle physics’ most significant theory: the Standard Model. This theory has described nearly all of the behavior of subatomic particles observed by scientists since its development in the 1970s, but recent findings have called this supremacy into question, including a 2022 finding from FermiLab data that suggests a certain boson, called the W boson, may be much heavier than predicted by the standard model.

Scientists may finally be able to solve this puzzle with future enhancements to the LHC, according to Harper. If data from the LHC’s latest run, Run 3, shows behavior that is not expected by the Standard Model, it could be an indication that there are forces or particles that the Standard Model does not currently understand.

“Voila, new physics discovered!” Harper says.

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An experiment showing detections about the W boson.CERN

WHY DID THE LHC STOP RUNNING?

In the past, observers worried that a catastrophic catastrophe at the collider might create a hazardous black hole (it wouldn’t have), but skeptics may now rest easy knowing that the collider’s three-year break was nothing more than scheduled improvements and maintenance.

In fact, this will not be the first or last time such a shutdown occurs. The LHC has two additional planned shutdowns into the 2030s, according to its operation timetable. According to Harper, the main goal of these shutdowns is to gradually boost the energy capabilities of the proton beams launched inside the collider in order to increase the odds of particles colliding together.

“Physicists want more collisions [and] more collisions,” Harper says. “The LHC and its detectors are being upgraded to supply and record as many as possible, which makes [for] happier physicists.”

The LHC fired two test beams last week, and the team plans to start collecting data for Run 3 later this summer. Harper estimates that Run 3 will last until the end of 2025, with just brief maintenance breaks along the way.

WHAT UPGRADES DID THE LHC GET?

The LHC got two major enhancements during its most recent outage, which began at the end of 2018:

  • Increased energy capacities for its devices enable researchers to generate more and faster collisions.
  • More sensitive data gathering tools with higher capture rates will allow researchers to record and analyze more collisions.

These improvements should generate and record more collisions for the detectors. According to CERN, the CMS detector (on which Harper is working) could expect to see “more collisions during this physics run than in the two previous physics runs combined.” Other continuing experiments, including as ATLAS, ALICE, and LHCb, are expected to see collisions up to fifty times higher than previously estimated.

Along with improving existing experiments, Run 3 will include two new experiments – FASER and SND@LHC – that are expressly designed to search for physics beyond the standard model.

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The left shows a result in which two W bosons and one Z boson are released, while the other shows two Z bosons released. CERN

For Harper, one of the most intriguing discoveries LHC could make during Run 3 is delving deeper into an abnormality identified by LHCb at the end of the last run that looked to suggest toward physics beyond the standard model. Scientists observed a form of boson known as a B meson break down into more electrons than expected by the standard model in this Run 2 data.

If Harper and colleagues can confirm this trend with additional data, scientists believe it could be proof of a new fifth force acting on these particles.

“It’s too early to say anything [certain,] but it’s got us very excited, and we are really looking forward to Run 3 being able to shed more light on this,” Harper says.

In addition to investigating this oddity, LHC researchers plan to delve further into other mysteries, such as the particles that comprise dark matter, by searching for missing momentum data from proton collisions. FASER, in particular, will zero in on this hunt.

Despite having all of this tantalizing data at their disposal, Harper claims that there will be a significant lag time between collecting the data and drawing any inferences from it. For ambitious scientists like Harper, this could be the most difficult element of the entire project.

“Unfortunately, we will have to wait while we collect and carefully analyze the data,” he says. “[It’s] tough for us as we are champing at the bit to see the results ourselves!”

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