From Ethan Siegel: “We Must Not Give Up On Answering The Biggest Scientific Questions Of All”

From Ethan Siegel
Feb 12, 2019

The doubly charmed baryon, Ξcc++, contains two charm quarks and one up quark, and was first experimentally discovered at CERN. Now, researchers have simulated how to synthesize it from other charmed baryons that ‘melt’ together, and the energy yields are tremendous. To uncover yet-unrevealed truths about the Universe requires investing in experiments that have never yet been performed. (DANIEL DOMINGUEZ, CERN)

Theoretical work tells you where to look, but only experiments can reveal what you’ll find.

There are fundamental mysteries out there about the nature of the Universe itself, and it’s our inherent curiosity about those unanswered questions that drives science forward. There’s an incredible amount we’ve learned already, and the successes of our two leading theories — the quantum field theory describing the Standard Model and General Relativity for gravity — is a testament to how far we’ve come in understanding reality itself.

Many people are pessimistic about our current attempts and future plans to try and solve the great cosmic mysteries that stymie us today. Our best hypotheses for new physics, including supersymmetry, extra dimensions, technicolor, string theory and more, have all failed to yield any experimental confirmation at all. But that doesn’t mean physics is in crisis. It means it’s working exactly as we’d expect: by telling the truth about the Universe. Our next steps will show us how well we’ve been listening.

From macroscopic scales down to subatomic ones, the sizes of the fundamental particles play only a small role in determining the sizes of composite structures. Whether the building blocks are truly fundamental and/or point-like particles is still not known.(MAGDALENA KOWALSKA / CERN / ISOLDE TEAM)


The ALPHA-g detector, built at Canada’s particle accelerator facility, TRIUMF, is the first of its kind designed to measure the effect of gravity on antimatter. When oriented vertically, it should be able to measure in which direction antimatter falls, and at what magnitude. Experiments such as this were unfathomable a century ago, as antimatter’s existence was not even known. (STU SHEPHERD/TRIUMF)

In nuclear fusion, two lighter nuclei fuse together to create a heavier one, but where the final products have less mass than the initial reactants, and where energy is therefore released via E = mc². In the ‘melting quark’ scenario, two baryons with heavy quarks produce a doubly-heavy baryon, releasing energy via the same mechanism.(GERALD A. MILLER / NATURE)

With everything we know about the fundamental particles, we know there should be more to the Universe than just the ones we know of. We cannot explain dark matter’s apparent existence, nor do we understand dark energy or why the Universe expands with the properties it does.

We do not know why the particles have the masses that they do, why matter dominates the Universe and not antimatter, or why neutrinos have mass at all. We do not know if the proton is stable or will someday decay, or whether gravity is an inherently quantum force in nature. And even though we know the Big Bang was preceded by inflation, we do not know whether inflation itself had a beginning, or was eternal to the past.

There is certainly new physics beyond the Standard Model, but it might not show up until energies far, far greater than what a terrestrial collider could ever reach. Still, whether this scenario is true or not, the only way we’ll know is to look. In the meantime, properties of the known particles can be better explored with a future collider than any other tool. (UNIVERSE-REVIEW.CA)

The Standard Model of elementary particles (more schematic depiction), with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.

Most of the ideas one can concoct in physics have already been either ruled out or highly constrained by the data we already have in our coffers. If you want to discover a new particle, field, interaction, or phenomenon, it doesn’t do you any good to postulate something that’s inconsistent with what we already know to be true today. Sure, there might be assumptions we’ve made that later turn out to be incorrect, but the data itself must be in agreement with any new theory.

The vertices shown in the above Feynman diagrams all contain three Higgs bosons meeting at a single point, which would enable us to measure the Higgs self-coupling, a key parameter in understanding fundamental physics. (ALAIN BLONDEL AND PATRICK JANOT / ARXIV:1809.10041)

That’s why the greatest amount of effort in physics goes not into new theories or new ideas, but into experiments that push past the regimes we’ve already explored. Sure, finding the Higgs boson may make tremendous headlines, but how strongly does the Higgs couple to the Z-boson? What are all the couplings between those two particles and the others in the Standard Model? How easy are they to create? And once you create them, are there any mutual decays that are different from a standard Higgs decay plus a standard Z-boson decay?

There’s a technique you can use to probe this: create an electron-positron collision at exactly the mass of the Higgs plus the Z-boson. Instead of a few dozen to perhaps 100 events that create both a Higgs and a Z-boson, which is what the LHC has yielded, you can create thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions.

When you collide electrons at high energies with hadrons (such as protons) moving in the opposite direction at high energies, you can gain the ability to probe the internal structure of the hadrons as never before. This was a trememdous advance of the DESY (German Electron Synchrotron) experiment. (JOACHIM MEYER; DESY / HERA)

H1 detector at DESY HERA ring

Not every experiment is designed to make new particles, nor should they be. Some are designed to probe matter that we already know exists, and to study its properties in detail as never before. LEP, the Large Electron-Positron collider and the predecessor to the LHC, never found a single new fundamental particle. Neither did the DESY experiment, which collided electrons with protons. Neither did RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

CERN LEP Collider


And that’s to be expected; that wasn’t the point of those colliders. Their purpose was to study the matter that we know exists to never-before-studied precisions.

With six quarks and six antiquarks to choose from, where their spins can sum to 1/2, 3/2 or 5/2, there are expected to be more pentaquark possibilities than all baryon and meson possibilities combined.(CERN / LHC / LHCB COLLABORATION)

CERN/LHCb detector

The purpose of the next great science experiment isn’t to simply look for one new thing or test one new theory. It’s to gather a huge suite of otherwise unattainable data, and to let that data guide the development of the field.

A hypothetical new accelerator, either a long linear one or one inhabiting a large tunnel beneath the Earth, could dwarf the LHC’s energies. Even at that, there’s no guarantee we’ll find anything new, but we’re certain to find nothing new if we fail to try. (ILC COLLABORATION)

Linear Collider Collaboration

CERN FCC Future Circular Collider details of proposed 100km-diameter successor to LHC

Proposed Future Colliders

Sure, we can design and build experiments or observatories with an eye towards what we anticipate might be there. But the best bet for the future of science is a multi-purpose machine that can gather large and varied amounts of data that could never be collected without such a tremendous investment. It’s why Hubble was so successful, why Fermilab and the LHC have pushed boundaries as never before, and why future missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope, future 30-meter class observatories like the GMT or the ELT, or future colliders beyond the LHC such as the FCC, CLIC, or the ILC are required if we ever hope to answer the most fundamental questions of all.

NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope


CERN map


CERN LHC particles

NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

Giant Magellan Telescope, to be at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory, to be built some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high

ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

CLIC collider

ILC schematic, being planned for the Kitakami highland, in the Iwate prefecture of northern Japan

There’s an old saying in business that applies to science just as well: “Faster. Better. Cheaper. Pick two.” The world is moving faster than ever before. If we start pinching pennies and don’t invest in “better,” it’s tantamount to already having given up.

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“Starts With A Bang! is a blog/video blog about cosmology, physics, astronomy, and anything else I find interesting enough to write about. I am a firm believer that the highest good in life is learning, and the greatest evil is willful ignorance. The goal of everything on this site is to help inform you about our world, how we came to be here, and to understand how it all works. As I write these pages for you, I hope to not only explain to you what we know, think, and believe, but how we know it, and why we draw the conclusions we do. It is my hope that you find this interesting, informative, and accessible,” says Ethan