AS DAMP squibs go, it was quite a spectacular one. Amid great pomp and ceremony – not to mention dark offstage rumblings that the end of the world was nigh – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s mightiest particle smasher, fired up in September last year. Nine days later a short circuit and a catastrophic leak of liquid helium ignominiously shut the machine down.
Now for take two. Any day now, if all goes to plan, proton beams will start racing all the way round the ring deep beneath CERN, the LHC’s home on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland.
Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg is worried. It's not that he thinks the LHC will create a black hole that will engulf the planet, or even that the restart will end in a technical debacle like last year’s. No: he’s actually worried that the LHC will find what some call the “God particle”, the popular and embarrassingly grandiose moniker for the hitherto undetected Higgs boson.
“I’m terrified,” he says. “Discovering just the Higgs would really be a crisis.”
Why so? Evidence for the Higgs would be the capstone of an edifice that particle physicists have been building for half a century – the phenomenally successful theory known simply as the standard model. It describes all known particles, as well as three of the four forces that act on them: electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces.
It is also manifestly incomplete. We know from what the theory doesn’t explain that it must be just part of something much bigger. So if the LHC finds the Higgs and nothing but the Higgs, the standard model will be sewn up. But then particle physics will be at a dead end, with no clues where to turn next.
Hence Weinberg’s fears. However, if the theorists are right, before it ever finds the Higgs, the LHC will see the first outline of something far bigger: the grand, overarching theory known as supersymmetry. SUSY, as it is endearingly called, is a daring theory that doubles the number of particles needed to explain the world. And it could be just what particle physicists need to set them on the path to fresh enlightenment.