Large Hadron Collider: Pumped-up particle smasher to probe deeper mysteries

Large Hadron Collider gears up for its second season in action

The Large Hadron Collider is getting back in business. After a two-year hiatus, the giant proton-smashing machine that brought you the discovery of the Higgs boson is set to take scientists’ experiments to nearly double its previous energy limit, in the hope of revealing the mysteries behind dark matter and other unexplained phenomena in the cosmos.

“I want to see the first light in the dark universe,” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, said at a press briefing Thursday.

CERN's Large Hadron Collider accelerates two particle beams though its 17-mile circumference and smashes them together to look for elusive particles in the resulting shower of detritus. The scientists had been limited by the collider's power, which could smash protons only up to energies of 8 trillion electron volts.

Now, after some serious upgrades, the collider will reach 13 trillion electron volts, more than 60% above its previous energy limit. And that allows scientists to look for more strange particles that were previously beyond the collider’s range,  scientists at the collider said.

The discovery of the Higgs, which earned Francois Englert and Peter W. Higgs a Nobel Prize in 2013, was a much-heralded discovery, but the boson had long been theorized, and its existence fits nicely into the standard model of particle physics.

“The Higgs boson was expected,” Fermilab particle physicist Don Lincoln said in an interview. “The real story would have been if we didn't find the Higgs boson. But now the standard model has been neatly tied up. All of the things that have been predicted have been found.”

The standard model, however, doesn’t explain many other strange phenomena in the universe: for example, what happened to the antimatter in the universe, and why the cosmos are filled with dark matter, mysterious invisible stuff whose gravity influences the spinning of galaxies.  

The standard model “doesn’t answer how we can fit the force of gravity together with the other forces that we know,” David Charlton, spokesman for the ATLAS experiment, one of four experiments at the collider, said at the briefing.

With this second run, “the real hope is that … we might be able to find something totally unexpected, something that causes us to rewrite our textbooks,” said Lincoln, who also works on the CMS experiment at the collider. “Finding something new might give us a little thread that we can pull at and unravel the tapestry of our existing theories and reknit something entirely new.”

Looking at higher energy ranges also means looking for higher mass ranges – and it might be in this regime that a dark matter particle, among other things, could be discovered, the researchers said.

“It is high time to find a crack in the standard model,” Heuer said.

The beam’s energy will be gradually ramped up in the coming weeks; it should be running at full power in about two months, the scientists said.

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