The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to be completed outside Geneva, Switzerland is a testament to two of the greatest human qualities: a fascination with the workings of the universe and the ability to collaborate to achieve shared goals.
After the machine – now the centerpiece of Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, CERN – comes into operation next year, it should allow experimentalists for the first time in decades to blast paths into regions on which settled theories are silent (p. see 269).
Physicists exploring this new world will do so as a unified global community. Although CERN is largely a European achievement of which the continent can take great pride, the LHC and its attendant detectors have received contributions in cash or kind from more or less every country with the potential to participate in such frontier science. The LHC therefore sets a new high-water mark in nostalgic global cooperation.
But it’s important to separate the unselfish from the unwilling. The nations of the world are not investing in the LHC because they expect to see returns similar to physics given in the twentieth century (most obviously and in the very realm of nuclear weapons). At the same time, it is becoming clear that such investments in physics no longer have as much excitement as they once did among the general public.
Interest in the advances made in the LHC’s immediate predecessors – the Large Electron Positron Collider at CERN and the Tevatron at Fermilab in the US – drops off fairly quickly, leaving the complex of high-energy physics.
Although the public likes the idea that scientists are making fundamental progress, advances made in particle physics may be far from the ideas that resonate in the common imagination.
In the first half of the twentieth century, nuclei, relativity, quantum and uncertainty theory were quickly assumed with cultural connotations far out of their scientific context. The Gauge symmetry and the Higgs boson have not yet gained such widespread, symbolic significance.
Many physicists would consider it hypothetical to suggest that they should – not least because the meanings associated with such concepts outside the realm of physics have often been far removed from their scientific meaning or in direct contradiction.
Also, it’s hard to ask people to spend the huge sums needed to explore the limits of particle physics if they don’t have some sense of investment in the questions being asked. Here, the LHC offers an opportunity to re-establish a resonance between particle physics and the wider culture in which it sits.
There is a strong case that the universe is composed in large part of ‘dark’ matter and energy, as opposed to components that we can directly observe (see pages 240 and 245). It is possible that observations made by the LHC’s detectors will speak directly to the nature of these, perhaps even producing some dark matter in the laboratory that dominates the spiraling and clustering of galaxies.
The search for the hidden components of the universe is a grandiose task, and an imaginative appeal worthy of the ongoing global effort at CERN. And a strong bond between the study of fundamental forces and particles on the one hand, and the structure and history of the universe on the other, bodes well for the future of particle physics in other ways as well.
Although machines like the LHC are fantastic, they will inevitably be few and far between. It is important to have alternative methods ahead that are less resource-intensive. Particle-scented astrophysics offers many opportunities along these lines, such as small-scale experiments looking for phenomena such as neutrinoless double-beta decay (see page 232).
CERN’s grandeur comes from the coupled missions of integration it has embarked on – the theoretical integration of the phenomena of physics and the practical integration of the world’s scientific aspirations.
The euphoria generated by uniting the very large with the very small, and should uniting world imaginations, helped restore the prized status our culture had reserved for fundamental physics.