It appears as though the LHC may have discovered a surprise enormous particle that gives a glimpse into a better – and entirely unexpected – theory of reality
Has the LHC captured a view of a new theory of reality?
IF IT is anything, it is what Gian Giudice has been waiting for his whole scientific life. “We are not talking about a confirmation of an established theory, but about opening a door into an unknown and unexplored world,” states Giudice, a theoretical particle physicist based at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland.
That is if it turns out to be anything. At the moment, all we have are clues emerging from the debris of collisions within CERN’s showpiece particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider. But if those clues firm up in the course of the coming weeks and months, it could be the big one. Forget the Higgs, forget even gravitational waves: 2016 could go down as the year when a new picture of nature’s fundamental workings was unveiled.
The hopes spring from two “bumps” that have shown up independently, in the same place, in the latest data from the LHC’s two big detectors, ATLAS and CMS. They point to the existence of a particle that dwarfs even the Higgs boson, the giver-of-mass particle identified at CERN in July 2012.
The Higgs was a milestone, but finally one that marked the end of a road. It was the last particle to be found of those predicted by the standard model of particle physics. This clutch of sophisticated equations matches every experimental result to date with exquisite precision, and describes the workings of three of the fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces …
A seriously troubling and controversial line of thinking has surfaced within the physics community. It is the concept that we are reaching the absolute limit of what we can comprehend about the world around us through science.
“The next few years may tell us whether we’ll be able to continue to increase our understanding of nature or whether maybe, for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer,” Harry Cliff, a particle physicist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – better known as CERN – stated during a recent TED talk in Geneva, Switzerland.
Equally terrifying is the reason for this approaching limit, which Cliff claims is: “Because the laws of physics forbid it.”
At the core of Cliff’s argument are what he calls the two most dangerous numbers in the Universe. These numbers are responsible for all the matter, structure, and life that we witness across the cosmos. And if these two numbers were even slightly different, claims Cliff, the Universe would be an empty, lifeless place.
Dangerous number one: The strength of the Higgs field
The primary dangerous number on Cliff’s list is a value that represents the strength of what physicists call the Higgs field, an unseen energy field not entirely unlike other magnetic fields that spreads throughout the cosmos.
As particles swim through the Higgs field, they gain mass to at some point become the protons, neutrons, and electrons comprising all of the atoms that make up you, me, and everything we observe around us. Without it, we would not be here.
We understand with near certainty that the Higgs field is present because of a groundbreaking discovery in 2012, when CERN physicists noticed a new elementary particle called the Higgs boson. In accordance with theory, you can not have a Higgs boson without a Higgs field. But there is something mysterious about the Higgs field that continues to perturb physicists like Cliff.
As outlined by Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics – the two theories in physics that drive our understanding of the cosmos on incredibly large and extremely small scales – the Higgs field should be performing one of two tasks, states Cliff.
Either it should be turned off, meaning it would have a strength value of zero and will not be working to give particles mass, or it should be turned on, and, as the theory goes, this ‘on value’ is “absolutely enormous,” Cliff states. But neither of those two scenarios are what physicists see.
“In reality, the Higgs field is just slightly on,” states Cliff. “It’s not zero, but it’s ten thousand trillion times weaker than its fully on value – a bit like a light switch that got stuck just before the ‘off’ position. And this value is crucial. If it were a tiny bit different, then there would be no physical structure in the Universe.”
Why the strength of the Higgs field is so ludicrously weak defies comprehending. Physicists hope to find an answer to this question by finding brand new particles at the newly-upgraded particle accelerator at CERN. So far, however, they’re still hunting.
Dangerous number two: The strength of dark energy
Cliff’s second dangerous number doubles as what physicists have called “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics”.
This perilous number deals in the depths of deep space and a mind-meltingly complex phenomenon called dark energy. Dark energy, a repulsive force that’s responsible for the accelerating expansion of our Universe, was first measured in 1998. Still, “we don’t know what dark energy is”, Cliff admits. “But the best idea is that it’s the energy of empty space itself – the energy of the vacuum.”
If this is correct, you should be able to sum up all the energy of empty space to get a value representing the strength of dark energy. And despite the fact that theoretical physicists have done so, there is one gigantic issue with their answer:
“Dark energy should be 10120 times stronger than the value we observe from astronomy,” Cliff stated. “This is a number so mind-boggling huge that it’s impossible to get your head around … this number is bigger than any number in astronomy – it’s a thousand trillion trillion trillion times bigger than the number of atoms in the Universe. That’s a pretty bad prediction.”
On the bright side, we are lucky that dark energy is smaller than theorists estimate. If it followed our theoretical models, then the repulsive force of dark energy would be so huge that it would virtually rip our Universe apart. The fundamental forces that bind atoms together would be powerless against it and nothing could ever form – galaxies, stars, planets, and life as we understand it would not exist.
Alternatively, it is extremely annoying that we can not utilize our current theories of the Universe to create a better measurement of dark energy that confirms with existing observations. Even better than improving our theories would be to find a way that we can understand why the strength of dark energy and the Higgs field is what it is.
Getting answers could be impossible
Cliff mentioned there is one possible way to get some answers, but we might never have the power to prove it.
If we could somehow verify that our Universe is just one in a vast multiverse of billions of other universes, then “suddenly we can understand the weirdly fine tuned values of these two dangerous numbers [because] in most of the multiverse dark energy is so strong that the Universe gets torn apart, or the Higgs field is so weak that no atoms can form,” Cliff explained.
To prove this, physicists need to discover new particles that would uphold radical theories like string theory, which predicts the existence of a multiverse. Today, there is only one place in the world that could possibly produce these particles, if they exist, and that’s the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
And physicists only have two to three years before CERN shuts the LHC down for upgrades. If we have not found anything by then, Cliff stated, it could signal the beginning of the end.
“We may be entering a new era in physics. An era where there are weird features in the Universe that we cannot explain. An era where we have hints that we live in a multiverse that lies frustratingly beyond our reach. An era where we will never be able to answer the question why is there something rather than nothing.”