4 March 2015
Inside the CMS experiment, the beam pipe is dwarfed by huge cylindrical detectors that will try to capture everything that emerges from the collisions.
As the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) gears up for its revamped second run, hurling particles together with more energy than ever before, physicists there are impatient. They want this next round of collisions to shake their discipline to its core.
LHC at CERN
“I can’t wait for the switch-on. We’ve been waiting since January 2013 to have our proton beams back,” says Tara Shears, a particle physics professor from the University of Liverpool.
Prof Shears is raising her voice over the occasional noise of fork-lift trucks and tools, as well as the constant hum of the huge experimental apparatus behind her: LHCb, one of four collision points spaced around the LHC’s 27km circumference.
All this noise reverberates because we are perched at the side of an imposing cavern, 30 storeys beneath the French-Swiss border.
In mid-March two beams of protons, driven and steered by super-cooled electromagnets, will do full circuits of the LHC in both directions – for the first time in two years. When that happens, there will be nobody between here and ground level. Then in May, if the protons’ practice laps proceed without a hitch, each of the four separate experiments will recommence its work: funnelling those tightly focussed, parallel beams into a head-on collision and measuring the results. For us, now, the other stations on the ring are a 10-20 minute drive away; for the protons, a lap will take less than one ten-thousandth of a second. They have the advantage of travelling a whisker under the speed of light.
They are moving with so much energy that when they collide, things get hot. Historically hot. “We’re recreating temperatures that were last seen billionths of a second after the Big Bang,” Prof Shears explains. “When you get to this hot temperature, matter dissociates into atoms, and atoms into nuclei and electrons. “Everything unravels to its constituents. And those constituents are what we study in particle physics.”
The two beams of protons are focussed into a tiny, intense blast before being put on a collision course
Alongside more pedestrian items, like electrons, or the quarks that combine to make protons and neutrons, these constituents include the world-famous Higgs boson.
This longed-for and lauded particle – the last major ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics – was detected by the teams at Atlas and CMS in 2012.
Then in early 2013, after countless further collisions with valuable but less sensational results, the LHC was wound down for a planned hiatus.
What is an electronvolt?
Particle accelerators use strong electric fields to speed up tiny pieces of matter
An electronvolt (eV) is the energy gained by one electron as it accelerates through a potential of one volt
The LHC reaches particle energies measured in trillions of eV: teraelectronvolts (TeV)
This is only the energy in the motion of a flying mosquito – per particle
The LHC beams contain hundreds of trillions of particles, each travelling at 99.99999999% of the speed of light
In total, an LHC beam has the energy of a TGV high-speed train travelling at 150 km/h
The two intervening years have been spent servicing and improving the collider.
“All the magnets have been surveyed, the connections between them have been X-rayed and strengthened, and all the electrical and cryogenic systems have been checked out and optimised,” Prof Shears says. This effort – between one and two million hours of work, all told – means that the LHC is now ready to operate at its “design energy”. Its initial run, after a dramatic false start in 2008, only reached a maximum collision energy of eight trillion electronvolts. That came after a boost in 2012 and the extra power delivered the critical Higgs observations within a few months.
When they kick off in May, the proton collisions will be at 13 trillion electronvolts: a leap equivalent to that made by the LHC when it first went into operation and dwarfed the previous peak, claimed by the 6km Tevatron accelerator in the US. “It’s a really significant step in terms of what we might be able to see in the Universe,” says Prof Shears.
“The design energy is a little higher again, at 14 TeV. We want to make sure that we can run close to it, first of all. If operations there are smooth, then subsequently, after next year, we can put the energy up that last little bit.” Alongside this radical hike in the beams’ energy, the experiments housed at the four collision sites have also had time to upgrade. Some have added extra detectors as well as finishing, mending or improving equipment that was built for the first run.
Build it up, tear it down
In a sense, one of the shiniest new items in the LHC’s armoury for Run Two is the Higgs boson. Now that its existence is confirmed and quantified, it can inform the next round of detection and analysis. “It’s a new door – a new tool that we can use to probe what is beyond the Standard Model,” says Dr Andre David, one of the research team working on the CMS experiment. Dr David is driving me from the CMS site, in France, back down the valley between the Jura Mountains and Lake Geneva to the main Cern headquarters. This main site, adjacent to the Atlas experiment, sits on the southern side of the LHC’s great circle and straddles the Swiss border.
Data flow: The LHC has immeasurable miles of cables to carry experimental data – as well as better mobile phone signal than you can get at ground level
He emphasises that the Higgs is much more than the final item on the Standard Model checklist; there is a great deal still to find out about it. “It’s like a new wrench that we still have to work out exactly where to fit.” Prof Shears agrees: “We’ve only had about a thousand or two of these new particles, to try and understand their nature.
“And although it looks like the Higgs boson that we expect from our theory, there’s still a chance that it might have partners that would then tell us that we’re not looking at our normal theory at all. We’re looking at something deeper and more exotic.”
That is the central impatience that is itching all the physicists here: they want to find something that falls completely outside what they expect or understand. “The data so far has confirmed that our theory is really really good, which is frustrating because we know it’s not!” Prof Shears says. “We know it can’t explain a lot of the Universe.
“So instead of trying to test the truth of this theory, what we really want to do now is break it – to show where it stops reflecting reality. That’s the only way we’re going to make progress.”
In the canteen at Cern headquarters I meet Dr Steven Goldfarb, a physicist and software developer on the Atlas team. His sentiments are similar. “We have a fantastic model – that we hate,” he chuckles. “It has stood up to precision measurements for 50 years. We get more and more precise, and it stands up and stands up. But we hate it, because it doesn’t explain the universe.”
Dark matter: present but invisible
In fact, only about 5% of the universe is accounted for by the Standard Model. Physicists think that the rest is made up of dark energy (70%) and dark matter (25%) – but these are still just proposals without any experimental evidence. Based on how fast galaxies move and spin, we know there is much more stuff in the universe than what we can see with telescopes. One idea for a “new physics” that might allow for more particles, including the mysterious constituents of dark matter, is supersymmetry.
It has also never been glimpsed in data from the LHC or elsewhere, but remains a popular concept with theorists. Supersymmetry suggests that all the particles we know about have heavier, “super” partners – as yet unseen by science.
That failure doesn’t faze the theory’s fans, Dr Golfarb explains. “If you say to someone who really likes supersymmetry, ‘Hey, why haven’t we found any of the particles yet?’ they’ll say, ‘We’ve found half of the particles! We just need to find the other half…'”
The Standard Model equation is etched in stone outside Cern’s control room – but physicists inside want to find something it can’t explain
They also make promising candidate building blocks for dark matter. But the researchers are open to other possibilities. Dr Goldfarb says the search need not focus on specific, ghostly particles: “It doesn’t have to be supersymmetry. You can also just look for dark matter. That’s why we build our detectors perfectly hermetically.”
CMS and Atlas are the two “general-purpose” experiments at the LHC. Both of them have detectors completely surrounding the collision point, so that nothing can escape.
Well, almost nothing. “You can’t build a neutrino detector – so neutrinos do get out. But we know under what circumstances and how often there ought to be neutrinos. So we can account for the missing energy.” What the team really wants to see is a chunk of missing energy that they categorically cannot account for. “When you see a lot of missing momentum – more than is predicted in standard model – then you may have found a candidate for dark matter,” Dr Goldfarb explains.
Antimatter: missing altogether
Even within the 5% of the universe that we do know about, there is a baffling imbalance. The Big Bang ought to have produced two flavours of particle – matter and antimatter – in equal amounts. When those two types of particle collide, they “annihilate” each other. A lot of that sort of annihilation went on, physicists say, and everything we can see in the universe is just the scraps left behind. But puzzlingly, nearly all of those scraps are of one flavour: matter.
“You just don’t get antimatter in the universe,” says Prof Shears. “You get it in sci-fi and you get it when things decay radioactively, but there are no good deposits of it around.” This glaring absence is “one of the biggest mysteries we have”, she adds. And it is the primary target of the LHCb experiment.
There, a series of slab-shaped detectors is waiting to try and pinpoint the difference between the particles and anti-particles that pop out of the proton collisions. Run One did reveal some of those differences – but nothing that could explain the drastic tipping of the universal scales towards matter.
The beam pipe runs directly through the middle of the huge, slab-shaped detectors at LHCb
“We think now that the answer has to lie in some new physics,” says Prof Shears. She hopes the near doubling of the collision energy will offer a peek. “We’ve got a million crazy ideas. All we can do is to keep our options open, to sift through the data – and to look for the unexpected.”
There are other questions, too. Gravity, somewhat alarmingly, is nowhere to be found in the Standard Model. “There’s no gravity on that mug,” says Dr Goldfarb, pointing to an LHC souvenir with the model’s equation emblazoned on its side. “That’s annoying! But there’s no answer in sight.” And there is always the ongoing quest to smash the things we currently think are the smallest in existence, and find smaller ones. Dr Goldfarb calls this “the oldest physics” and imagines a cavewoman – the first physicist – banging rocks together to see what was inside.
Final touches at CMS: ‘It’s like you’ve put a ship in the harbour and replaced every single plank’ “We’re still doing that today, and we still wonder what’s inside,” he says. “There’s nothing that discounts the idea that electrons, or quarks, are made up of something else. We just call them fundamental because as far as we know, they are.”
The extra power in Run Two might produce just this kind of fundamental fruit. “The more energy we have for these collisions, the smaller the bits that we can look at,” says Dr David.
“The ultimate goal here is to understand what matter is made of.” And the world’s largest laboratory is not just repaired, but renewed and ready for that goal. “It’s like you’ve put a ship in the harbour and replaced every single plank,” Dr David says with pride. “It’s not the same ship. It’s a whole new ship and it’s going on a new adventure.”
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