Fabiola Gianotti, director-general-elect of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, spoke this week about the future of particle colliders and the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Gianotti will be the first female to head CERN, the top particle physics lab in the world, beginning her tenure at the start of 2016. Since its founding in 1954, CERN has conducted research instrumental to the development for the Standard Model, a theory that relates the fundamental forces of the universe to subatomic particles.
“With the discovery of Higgs boson, we have completed the Standard Model,” said Gianotti during her second of the two lectures — part of the Leigh Page Prize Lectures held in Sloana Physics Laboratory. “Not only is the equation beautiful — it is very condensed and can even fit on the side of a mug — it also works beautifully.”
But the work, she argued, is far from over. Physicists have yet to explain phenomena like dark matter and dark energy, and hypotheses like supersymmetry need extensive research beyond even the capacities of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which, with a 27-mile circumference, is the largest single machine in the world, she said.
While she said that the LHC is critical to the advancement of particle physics, CERN is considering some even more ambitious developments, such as a 31-kilometer accelerator in Japan and another accelerator that would require 600 megawatts — or enough energy to power 200,000 standard American homes — to operate.
One mission of these new accelerator proposals would be to find “new physics,” said John Harris, professor and director of undergraduate studies of the Yale Physics major.
“This is physics that cannot be explained with the Standard Model,” Harris said, noting that the Standard Model cannot explain dark energy and dark matter.
To pursue research in new physics, Harris said, it is necessary to invest in building more powerful magnets and more precise beams, so that the particle accelerator will be able to collide particles at higher energy in order to cause reactions that have not yet been observed. Through this investment, Harris believes that discoveries in phenomena such as supersymmetry will be possible.
Supersymmetry is a hypothesis that attempts to solve what is called the “hierarchy problem,” a concept involving the origins of the fundamental forces — like gravity and electromagnetism — in the universe and the massive discrepancy between the strength of gravity and other forces. The most symmetrical solution is the possibility that all of these forces were once one singular force at the beginning of the universe, Harris said.
Gianotti said the accelerator would help answer many questions besides supersymmetry, such as why gravity is so many orders of magnitude weaker than the other fundamental forces, why there is more matter than antimatter, the cause of the universe’s expansion and the composition of dark matter.
In one question at the end of the lecture, Gianotti was asked whether the U.S. should try to join CERN. She said the United States might not benefit most from full membership, but suggested that the U.S. should move to become an associate member, meaning that they would be able to contribute to the lab’s research while only having to contribute one-tenth the amount of money.
As part of Gianotti’s visit, the Physics Department also offered a Whitney Humanities Center screening of “Particle Fever,” a documentary about CERN’s search for the Higgs boson. One attendee, William Eckner ’18, said that the event fit in well with his studies in physics.
“This lecture reinforced an idea that my physics professor emphasizes all the time in class — any theory has to have experimental evidence,” he said. “The scale of the proposed projects and experiments demonstrates how firmly rooted physics is in this principle.”
In 2013, CERN’s budget — funded by 20 member countries — was $1.3 billion dollars.