With the Large Hadron Collider gearing up for its first test run this summer, physicists hope to discover the last missing particle predicted by the Electroweak theory, the Higgs boson. Wrapped up in its own big theory, the Higgs Mechanism or Higgs Field, it supposedly confers mass or absolute weight on some paricles or collections of them like atoms and planets. The Higgs Field is a must, otherwise the Electroweak theory falls flat, insisting that all particles are massless, that matter doesn't exist.
The LHC has been sold to politicians and the public as the experiment that will find the Higgs, though in fact the LHC, no ordinary atom smasher, aims to produce it with colossal energies applied to protons, lead ions later, collided together in a mini Big Bang. The disaster scenarios also start here.
Although most particle physicists are quite sure the Higgs boson exists and are willing to gamble the $8.7 billion LHC on it, there is no certainty they can produce it or prove that the Higgs actually does confer mass. There are other competing theories that explain the conferring of mass in different ways. Technicolor physics models, Top Quark Condensate theory, and a new one by R.A. Sharipov. His recent paper is worth a look, "The Higgs Field Can Be Expressed Through The Lepton And Quark Fields". Here, Composite Higgs Fields can be used to construct the actual Higgs Field as a linear combination, an intriguing idea.
Another 24 quantum field theories besides the Standard Model crowd the field of field theories. The united front of science that looms like a giant fortress in popular culture is really a maze of contradictions, discrepancies, and holes where other theories lie burried. Physics is left to physicists because ordinary mortals can't follow what they're doing, and so they get a blank check to do whatever they think is important. But it's not beyond us to figure out what they want and where it might lead us. If physicists think physics is unintelligable to everyone else, they should remember what Einstein said: "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."
Eminent physicists like the past and present directors general of CERN have managed to avoid important questions nobody is asking anyway, to further their vision of the future. Dr Christopher Llewellyn Smith, the former director who started the LHC ball rolling, was candid enough to say:
"I felt that getting the LHC going was critical, because it came in the aftermath of the (Texas superconducting) supercollider cancellation. If that had failed it could have spelled the end of our field (particle physics), I suppose."
Current director, Dr Robert Aymar sees the LHC as the new frontier:
"The LHC is an absolute necessity if we are to take the field further. If nothing new turns up below a collision energy of 1 TeV (a Higgs within the confines of the Standard Model prediction), this would be very bad for particle physics, and for humanity."
Bad for humanity? It's only a theory with an air of desperation, no physics having been done at CERN since the LEP was dismantled in 2000 to make way for the LHC. Recall too, there are possibly grave risks involved in testing this theory. See my previous column, "Countdown To The Large Hadron Collider". One of CERN's top physicists spends much of his time trying to convince people that the LHC won't destroy the world. Michaelangelo L. Mangano interviewed last month by the Los Angeles Times:
"If it were just crackpots, we could wave them away. But some are real physicists."
Back to understanding physics. Like other sciences, physics has two modes, the observable and the abstract. Theories cover the unseen abstract and the rest is a matter of measurement. If you look at the picture above, you'll see our planet, the measurable affecting Spacetime, the abstract invisible. Physics theories grapple with both, though the quest for the Higgs Field is in the abstract dimension, the Higgs boson in the measurable physical. In quantum field theory the excitations of fields represent particles. The problem is it has never been found in the physical. The explanation is that these bosons decay extremely rapidly according to Fermilab, like other W and Z bosons that have been detected at earlier CERN experiments by the former LEP collider.
In fact we think that the confusion in particle physics with so many theories trying to crowd each other out, so many loose ends and holes, especially sidelining gravity, is due to the 'can't see the forest for the trees' effect. All these field theories must be trying to describe aspects of Spacetime. And they need an Einstein to sort this out.
As far as the Higgs, we would have to assume an extraordinarily large field with a vast number of Higgs bosons of a very high energy for this theory to work. Conventionally, there's nothing so far out there in space or in particle physics to produce this effect. But the otherwise sound Electroweak theory does desperately need some sort of Higgs Field. It could be something entirely unexpected, not to do withh bosons at all. The obvious candidate is dark energy and dark matter, that astrophysicists think comprises 96% of the Universe. The recent claim by Italian physicists at Gran Sasso, that dark matter has been detected there, is worth a closer look. Large scale passive detectors, whether radio telescopes or other sensor arrays, have already contributed most of the experimental data scientists rely on for their understanding of matter and energy. It's a burgeoning field including three other WIMP detectors, relying on non-destructive methodology, with no risks for the planet.
The problem with dark matter is the Fermilab team, the CDMS, the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, hosting also the COUPP search, the Chicagoland Observatory for Underground Particle Physics, and the UK Dark Matter Collaboration, have not detected any worthwhile candidates. The Italians at DAMA, the Dark Matter collaboration at the Gran Sasso lab, shot themselves collectively in the foot back in 2000, with faulty readings and claims using a NaI detector, now abandoned for Xenon10. Last month the Italians courageously did it again, claiming they directly detected dark matter. With no independent confirmation from the other three dark matter search teams, the Italians must think theirs is the only detector that works. Maybe they're right. Give them top quarks for trying.
Browne, Malcolm W., A Millennial Angst for Particle Physics, The New York Times, Jan 19, 1999
Chalmers, Matthew, Life at the high-energy frontier, Physics World, Oct 4, 2006
Johnson Jr., John, New atom-smasher could fill gaps in scientific knowledge -- or open a black hole, Los Angeles Times, Apr 13, 2008
Sharipov, R.A., The Higgs Field Can Be Expressed Through The Lepton And Quark Fields, arXiv:hep-ph, Mar 1, 2007