What does it mean to invest in the Large Hadron Collider? A few perspectives...

On December 10, 2012, I spoke to a bunch of physicists attending the Frontiers of High-energy Physics symposium at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. They included Rahul Sinha, G. Rajasekaran, Tom Kibble, Sheldon Stone, Marina Artuso, M.V.N. Murthy, Kajari Mazumdar, and Hai-Yang Cheng, amongst others.

All their talks, obviously, focused on either the search for the Higgs boson or the search for dark matter, with the former being assured and celebratory and the latter, contemplative and cautious. There was nothing new left to be said – as a peg for a news story – given that what of 2012 had gone before that day had already read hundreds of stories on the two searches.

Most of the memorable statements by physicists I remember from that day came from Dr. Sheldon Stone, Syracuse University, and member, LHCb collaboration.

A word on the LHCb before I go any further: It’s one of the seven detector-experiments situated on the Large Hadron Collider’s (LHC’s) ring. Unlike the ATLAS and CMS, whose focus is on the Higgs boson, the LHCb collaboration is studying the decay of B-mesons and signs of CP-symmetry violations at high energies.

While he had a lot to say, he also best summed up what physicists worldwide might’ve felt when the theorised set of particles’ rules called the Standard Model (SM) was having its predictions validated one after the other, leaving no room for a new theory to edge its way in. While very elegant by itself, the SM has no answers to some of the more puzzling questions, such as that of dark matter or of mass-hierarchy problem.

In other words, the more it stands validated, the fewer cracks there are for a new and better theory, like Supersymmetry, to show itself.

In Dr. Stone’s words, “It’s very depressing. The Standard Model has been right on target, and so far, nothing outside the model has been observed. It’s very surprising that everything works, but at the same time, we don’t know why it works! Everywhere, physicists are depressed and clueless, intent on digging deeper, or both. I’m depressed, too, but I also want to dig deeper.”

In answer to some of my questions on what the future held, Dr. Stone said, “Now that we know how things actually work, we’re starting to play some tricks. But beyond that, moving ahead, with new equipment, etc., is going to cost a lot of money. We’ve to invest in the collider, in a lot of detector infrastructure, and computing accessories. In 2012, we had a tough time keeping with the results the LHC was producing. For the future, we’re counting on advancements in computer science and the LHC Grid.”

One interesting thing that he mentioned in one of his answers was that the LHC costs less than one aircraft-carrier. I thought that’d put things in perspective – how much some amount of investment in science could achieve when compared to what the same amount could achieve in other areas. This is not to discourage the construction of aircraft carriers, but to rethink the opportunities science research has the potential to unravel.