In 2013, scientists working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva revealed to the world the elusive Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that had only a theoretical existence up until that moment. This incredible finding was made possible by the construction of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator — the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
Particle accelerators are the stuff of science fiction, firing particle beams at each other close to the speed of light to create conditions similar to those at the beginning of the universe. Recently, the LHC has been fired up once again – this time in search for a quasiparticle that scientists have aptly named the 'Odderon'. It is often difficult to understand why discoveries such as these are important to humanity — especially if you don’t have a PhD. in physics. While many internet denizens will have you believe that CERN is hell-bent on destroying the universe, we spoke to Steven Goldfarb, a physicist at CERN, who assures that this is not the case. After all, as Steve says, “We live here too you know.”
You guys talk a lot of talk about opening up a parallel universe – can you explain what this means? Should we be worried?
We physicists are at fault for our poor communication skills. We use a lot of terminology that can sound strange and scary to the public (such as micro black holes), but which makes perfect sense in our community. Contrary to popular belief, we are not out to destroy the universe. We actually live here, too, you know…
Some journalists (not including Penthouse, of course) confuse extra dimensions with parallel universes. Extra dimensions, as described above, would be microscopic and we would only be able to actually see them indirectly through events that exist for an instant and then disappear quickly. It is mind-blowing but harmless.
I suggest watching Particle Fever by Mark Levinson, which includes some amazing discussions of this very issue by theorists David Kaplan and Nima Arkani-Hamed. It is a wonderful documentary on the search for and discovery of the Higgs-Boson. Well worth the watch.
Back in 2016, it was announced that the LHC may be able to detect dark matter – what is dark matter and why is it so hard to detect?
Dark matter is a substance that we have not yet figured out how to detect directly, but which we are pretty sure makes up 80 per cent of the matter in our universe. I wish I could see the expressions on our great grandchildren when they realise exactly how ignorant we were way back in the 21st century…
The reason we have confidence we might be able to pin it down with the LHC experiments is the following:
> Dark matter, by definition, has mass, and it appears to be stable.
> This means that it could very well be made up of a stable massive fundamental particle.
> The Higgs-Boson, which we first measured in 2012, interacts with all massive fundamental particles.
> By measuring precisely the properties of the Higgs-Boson, we ought to get a handle on the dark matter particle.
> We will be producing more Higgs bosons than ever before and will be able to measure its properties precisely.
So, we are very excited by this prospect. Frankly, it is a bit embarrassing that we only understand 20 per cent of matter.
Why is the research being conducted at the LHC important beyond the physics community?
First of all, fundamental research in any of the sciences always has a large knowledge multiplying factor. It is the greatest investment humankind can (and must) make. The screen you are looking at, the mouse, the touchscreen, the phone, etc., are all outcomes of fundamental research. Particle physics has contributed to medical imaging (PET scans, MRIs), medical treatment (hadron therapy), distributed computing and communication (worldwide web, computing grid technology, etc.). The list is impossible to summarise here, and the same goes for other fields of scientific research.
Image: One part of the LHC / courtesy of CERN.
Tell us honestly – are you trying to blast open a gateway for apocalyptic demons?
Frankly, I am more amazed by the amount of time some people have on their hands than their imaginations. I wish I could harness all that energy to do positive work, rather than to try to seek conspiracy.
There are roughly 4000-5000 scientists on our collaboration, from 180 institutions located in 38 countries around the world. As scientists, each one of these individuals is trained to be critical of their work and the work of their colleagues. It is said that an experimentalist is the last one to believe her own results. That is how we are trained.
When we produce a paper describing our measurements (all of our papers are public and freely available), you can be guaranteed that it has passed through an extremely rigorous phase of peer review, including checks, double checks, and re-writes. To imagine this group of people being able to get together to conspire would be insane. We couldn’t cover up a rodent eating our cables if we wanted to. And we don’t want to. CERN is all about openness and collaboration. That is how it was founded and I cannot imagine it any other way.
The conspiracy theorists are attracted to complex ideas and terminology. This gives them fertile ground to create meaningless fables. We provide plenty of food for them: black holes, extra dimensions, multiverses, big bangs, etc. In our field, each of these terms has an exact and specific meaning.
What adds fuel to the fire is that seeing these terms used incorrectly drives us mad. So, we often waste our time feeding the trolls. It is hard for us to ignore them since we legitimately care about science and the communication of science to the world. We have been asked by the world to do this research and we take that responsibility very seriously. So, anyone insinuating that this is not the case drives my colleagues and me mad.
By the way, the gateway is nearly complete. So, just let me know if you are interested in visiting the demons. I hear they throw a hell of a party…
Here are some facts to counter any LHC conspiracies:
> The energy of two protons colliding in the LHC is similar to one mosquito doing a push-up.
> Mother Nature has performed the equivalent of the entire LHC program about 10,000 times in earth’s upper atmosphere before we even got started. And we are still here...
What’s a physicist’s idea of a practical joke?
I made a feeble attempt at humour in 2015 for April 1, by putting a video up on our social media that claimed to be “first evidence of dark matter in ATLAS.” It was, of course, 30 seconds of black. CERN, in 2016, put up a video showing that we “discovered” the Higgs-Boson by hearing the data with sonification (somehow Wagner carried the theme). One year, Fabiola Gianotti, the new Director General of CERN, was featured in a video declaring that Comic Sans was the new official font of CERN. This was a response to the attention she drew in 2012, when her presentation of the Higgs-Boson discovery by ATLAS was written in that font. Comic Sans trended on Twitter that day, alongside Higgs-Boson, CERN, and LHC.
Probably best to let us stick to science.
So, anyhow, these two protons walked into a black hole...