And today it's your lucky day (and mine), as you get to listen to a clear thinker explaining what really is the status of research in fundamental physics, and why it is actually extremely exciting, much to the discomfort of those who would prefer that public money were spent to reduce taxes (if you don't get the pun, please leave).
In a lengthy interview to the CERN Courier, Nima explains it all. The piece's first sentence should be enough to get the Bees out there to F-wave (spectroscopy notation, mind you):
"The case for building the next major collider is now more compelling than ever."quoth he. What's more, in Nima's words
"There has never been a better time to be a physicist. [...] I just wish I could adjust when I was born so that I could be starting as a grad student today!"Wow. Please go on NAH! He got my attention all right. Is he really serious? What have all those critics of future colliders been pontificating about, then? Nima explains it clearly in what follows. The name of the game is not "find the next bump", in truth. We have been led into that kind of groupthink by decades of successful bump hunting, but really, we should not forget that Physics is about measuring things. Not exciting enough for you? Then change field of study. Here is what he says:
"While we continue to scratch our heads as theorists, the most important path forward for experimentalists is completely clear: measure the hell out of these crazy phenomena! From many points of view, the Higgs is the most important actor in this story amenable to experimental study, so I just can’t stand all the talk of being disappointed by seeing nothing but the Higgs; it’s completely backwards."Indeed, times are exciting, as we have in our hands a very, very special particle, which poses mindboggling new questions:
"It is the first example we’ve seen of the simplest possible type of elementary particle. It has no spin, no charge, only mass, and this extreme simplicity makes it theoretically perplexing."Nima then masterfully explains what he means:
"There is a striking difference between massive and massless particles that have spin. For instance, a photon is a massless particle of spin one; because it moves at the speed of light, we can’t 'catch up' with it, and so we only see it have two 'polarisations', or ways it can spin. By contrast the Z boson, which also has spin one, is massive; since you can catch up with it, you can see it spinning in any of three directions. This 'two not equal to three' business is quite profound. As we collide particles at ever increasing energies, we might think that their masses are irrelevant tiny perturbations to their energies, but this is wrong, since something must account for the extra degrees of freedom.He further explains why the Higgs boson is special, and why it is imperative to study it, when his interviewer triggers him into explaining why we should build a new collider:
The whole story of the Higgs is about accounting for this 'two not equal to three' issue, to explain the extra spin states needed for massive W and Z particles mediating the weak interactions. And this also gives us a good understanding of why the masses of the elementary particles should be pegged to that of the Higgs. But the huge irony is that we don’t have any good understanding for what can explain the mass of the Higgs itself."
"First and foremost, we go to high energies because it’s the frontier, and we look around for new things. While there is absolutely no guarantee we will produce new particles, we will definitely stress test our existing laws in the most extreme environments we have ever probed. Measuring the properties of the Higgs, however, is guaranteed to answer some burning questions. All the drama revolving around the existence of the Higgs would go away if we saw that it had substructure of any sort. But from the LHC, we have only a fuzzy picture of how point-like the Higgs is. A Higgs factory will decisively answer this question via precision measurements of the coupling of the Higgs to a slew of other particles in a very clean experimental environment. After that the ultimate question is whether or not the Higgs looks point-like even when interacting with itself."I find the following sentence quite revealing. I have taught this stuff in Masters courses and yet, for some reason (guess which), he can explain it much better than I ever could.
"The simplest possible interaction between elementary particles is when three particles meet at a space–time point. But we have actually never seen any single elementary particle enjoy this simplest possible interaction. For good reasons going back to the basics of relativity and quantum mechanics, there is always some quantum number that must change in this interaction – either spin or charge quantum numbers change. The Higgs is the only known elementary particle allowed to have this most basic process as its dominant self-interaction. A 100-TeV collider producing billions of Higgs particles will not only detect the self-interaction, but will be able to measure it to an accuracy of a few per cent. Just thinking about the first-ever probe of this simplest possible interaction in nature gives me goosebumps."He also makes the following very unconventional, surprising point about the rationale for continuing our quest at the high-energy frontier. I must thank him for bringing it up thus:
"[...] it goes beyond that to something more important about our self-conception as people capable of doing great things. The world has all kinds of long-term problems, some of which might seem impossible to solve. So it’s important to have a group of people who, over centuries, give a concrete template for how to go about grappling with and ultimately conquering seemingly impossible problems, driven by a calling far larger than themselves. Furthermore, suppose it’s 200 years from now, and there are no big colliders on the planet. How can humans be sure that the Higgs or top particles exist? Because it says so in dusty old books? There is an argument to be made that as we advance we should be able to do the things we did in the past. After all, the last time that fundamental knowledge was shoved in old dusty books was in the dark ages, and that didn’t go very well for the West."He also has a point that tears to smithereens the arguments some ex-particle-phenomenologist-cum-still-blogger likes to make:
"Another argument is that we should wait until some breakthrough in accelerator technology, rather than just building bigger machines. This is naïve. Of course miracles can always happen, but we can’t plan doing science around miracles. Similar arguments were made around the time of the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) 30 years ago, with prominent condensed-matter physicists saying that the SSC should wait for the development of high-temperature superconductors that would dramatically lower the cost. Of course those dreamed-of practical superconductors never materialised, while particle physics continued from strength to strength with the best technology available."The interview is much richer than what transpires from this succinct account, and it is quite enjoyable, so I urge you to read it in full!
Tommaso Dorigo is an experimental particle physicist who works for the INFN at the University of Padova, and collaborates with the CMS experiment at the CERN LHC. He coordinates the European network AMVA4NewPhysics as well as research in accelerator-based physics for INFN-Padova, and is an editor of the journal Reviews in Physics. In 2016 Dorigo published the book “Anomaly! Collider physics and the quest for new phenomena at Fermilab”. You can get a copy of the book on Amazon.