Not just the Higgs boson

Tom Feilden
Science correspondent, Today

image copyrightPA
image captionPhysicists are increasingly hopeful that the discovery of the Higgs boson is within reach

Physicists at Cern are powering up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) again, ready for a final push to confirm the discovery of the Higgs boson - the final piece of the jigsaw known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics.

So what then? Such a fuss has been made about finally nailing down the Higgs you could be forgiven for thinking that - once the champagne had been quaffed and the Nobel Prizes handed out - we could all pack up and go home.

Not a bit of it. Only two of the four main experimental detectors straddling the 27km ring of the LHC are even looking for the Higgs and both are interested in much, much more.

The mission statement for the Atlas experiment - titled Mapping the Secrets of the Universe - makes no mention of the Higgs, preferring to focus on the forces that have shaped our universe, extra dimensions of space, the unification of fundamental forces and evidence for dark matter candidates.

"We're all very excited about finally sorting out the Higgs hypothesis one way or the other," says Professor Andy Parker, head of high energy physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and a senior member of the Atlas team.

"But that is just one part of a great process, and we have a huge number of other things we're also looking for. There's no pause in the march of science in this case."

'Primordial soup'

Elsewhere, at the Alice experiment, they're colliding heavy lead ions to explore the creation of matter itself and the nature of the strong nuclear force in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.

media captionProf Jon Butterworth: Maybe science needs some glamour

"We're recreating, in a sub-atomic fireball, the conditions that existed a millionth of a second after the Big Bang," explains Dr David Evans, head of the Birmingham team working on Alice.

"It's so hot and so dense that even protons and neutrons melt, and we end up with a sort of primordial soup known as the quark-gluon plasma."

Dr Evans is particularly frustrated by the emphasis on the Higgs. It's important, he believes, but there's a lot more going on at Cern.

"What's even more worrying is that if the Higgs is ruled out people will say the LHC is a failure," he adds.

"Actually, it gets even more exciting."

Even the man who set the whole ball rolling back in the 1960s, Peter Higgs, has weighed into the argument, saying that the authorities at Cern have made a serious mistake by putting so much emphasis on the particle that bears his name.

"They've talked up the search for the Higgs boson too much," he told Prospect magazine.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThose at Cern are keen to point out that their work is about much more than just the Higgs boson

"So much so that they're in danger of having their paymasters say 'Oh well, you've found it now, you don't need to run that expensive machine any more'".

UCL Professor Jon Butterworth concedes there probably has been too much focus on the Higgs, but you couldn't blame scientists for taking advantage of the free publicity that resulted from the media's apparently insatiable appetite for a tangible eureka moment.

"Even for people like me the Higgs is just the first thing on the to-do list," he says.

"This machine opens a door to a new room, but we've got to have a good look around in that new room. It's a very important question but it's far from the only one."

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