If particle physicists get their way, new accelerators could one day scrutinize the most tantalizing subatomic particle in physics — the Higgs boson. Six years after the particle’s discovery at the Large Hadron Collider, scientists are planning enormous new machines that would stretch for tens of kilometers across Europe, Japan or China.
The 2012 discovery of the subatomic particle, which reveals the origins of mass, put the finishing touch on the standard model, the overarching theory of particle physics (SN: 7/28/12, p. 5). And it was a landmark achievement for the LHC, currently the world’s biggest accelerator.
Now, physicists want to delve further into the mysteries of the Higgs boson in the hope that it could be key to solving lingering puzzles of particle physics. “The Higgs is a very special particle,” says physicist Yifang Wang, director of the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing. “We believe the Higgs is the window to the future.”
But the LHC — which consists of a ring 27 kilometers in circumference, inside which protons are accelerated to nearly the speed of light and smashed together a billion times a second — can take scientists only so far. That accelerator was great for discovering the Higgs, but not ideal for studying it in detail.
So particle physicists are clamoring for a new particle collider, specifically designed to crank out oodles of Higgs bosons. Several blueprints for powerful new machines have been put forth, and researchers are hopeful these “Higgs factories” could help reveal solutions to glaring weak spots in the standard model.
“The standard model is not a complete theory of the universe,” says experimental particle physicist Halina Abramowicz of Tel Aviv University. For example, the theory can’t explain dark matter, an unidentified substance whose mass is necessary to account for cosmic observations such as the motions of stars in galaxies. Nor can it explain why the universe is made up of matter, while antimatter is exceedingly rare.
Carefully scrutinizing the Higgs boson might point scientists in the direction of solutions to those puzzles, proponents of the new colliders claim. But, among scientists, the desire for new, costly accelerators is not universal, especially since it’s unclear what exactly the machines might find.
Next in line
Closest to inception is the International Linear Collider in northern Japan. Unlike the LHC, in which particles zip around a ring, the ILC would accelerate two beams of particles along a straight line, directly at one another over its 20-kilometer length. And instead of crashing protons together, it would collide electrons and their antimatter partners, positrons.
But, in an ominous sign, a multidisciplinary committee of the Science Council of Japan came down against the project in a December 2018 report, urging the government to be cautious with its support and questioning whether the expected scientific achievements justified the accelerator’s cost, currently estimated at around $5 billion.
Supporters argue that the ILC’s plan to smash together electrons and positrons, rather than protons, has some big advantages. Electrons and positrons are elementary particles, meaning they have no smaller constituents, while protons are made up of smaller particles called quarks. That means that proton collisions are messier, with more useless particle debris to sift through.
Additionally, in proton smashups, only a fraction of each proton’s energy actually goes into the collision, whereas in electron-positron colliders, particles bring the full brunt of the accelerator’s energy to bear. That means scientists can tune the energy of collisions to maximize the number of Higgs bosons produced. At the same time, the ILC would require only 250 billion electron volts to produce Higgs bosons, compared with the LHC’s 13 trillion electron volts.
For the ILC, “the quality of the data coming out will be much higher, and there will be much more of it on the Higgs,” says particle physicist Lyn Evans of CERN in Geneva. One in every 100 ILC collisions would pump out a Higgs, whereas that happens only once in 10 billion collisions at the LHC.
The Japanese government is expected to decide about the collider in March. If the ILC is approved, it should take about 12 years to build, Evans says. The accelerator could also be upgraded later to increase the energy it can reach.
CERN has plans for a similar machine known as the Compact Linear Collider. It would also collide electrons and positrons, but at higher energies than the ILC. Its energy would start at 380 billion electron volts and increase to 3 trillion electron volts in a series of upgrades. But to reach those higher energies, new particle acceleration technology needs to be developed, meaning that CLIC is even further in the future than the ILC, says Evans, who leads a collaboration of researchers from both projects. CLIC scientists, however, report that the technology has been successfully tested and construction could begin soon — as early as 2026, and the accelerator could start up in 2035.
Running in circles
Two other planned colliders, in China and Europe, would be circular like the LHC, but would dwarf that already giant machine; both would be 100 kilometers around. That’s a circle big enough that the country of Liechtenstein could easily fit inside — twice.
At a location yet to be determined in China, the Circular Electron Positron Collider, or CEPC, would collide electrons and positrons at 240 billion electron volts, according to a conceptual plan officially released in November and championed by Wang and the Institute of High Energy Physics. The accelerator could later be upgraded to collide protons at higher energies. Scientists say they could begin constructing the $5 billion to 6 billion machine by 2022 and have it ready to go by 2030.
And at CERN, the proposed Future Circular Collider, or FCC, would likewise operate in stages, colliding electrons and positrons before moving on to protons. The ultimate goal would be to reach proton collisions with 100 trillion electron volts, more than seven times the LHC’s energy, according to a Jan. 15 report from an international group of researchers.
Meanwhile, scientists have shut down the LHC for two years, while they upgrade the machine to function at a slightly higher energy (SN Online: 12/3/18). Further down the line, a souped-up version known as the High-Luminosity LHC could come online in 2026 and would increase the proton collision rate by at least a factor of five (SN Online: 6/15/18).
Portrait of the Higgs
When the LHC was built, scientists were fairly confident they’d find the Higgs boson with it. But with the new facilities, there’s no promise of new particles. Instead, the machines will aim to catalog how strongly the Higgs interacts with other known particles; in physicist lingo, these are known as its “couplings.”
Measurements of the Higgs’ couplings may simply confirm expectations of the standard model. But if the observations differ from expectations, the discrepancy could indirectly hint at the presence of something new, such as the particles that make up dark matter.
Some scientists are hopeful that something unexpected might arise. That’s because the Higgs is an enigma: The particles condense into a kind of molasses-like fluid. “Why does this fluid do that? We have no clue,” says theoretical particle physicist Michael Peskin of Stanford University. That fluid pervades the universe, slowing particles down and giving them heft.
Another puzzle is that the Higgs’ mass is a million billion times smaller than expected (SN Online: 10/22/13). Certain numbers in the standard model must be fine-tuned to extreme precision make the Higgs less hefty, a situation physicists find unnatural.
The weirdness of the Higgs suggests other particles might be out there. Scientists previously thought they had an answer to the Higgs quandaries, via a theory called supersymmetry, which posits that each known particle has a heavier partner (SN: 10/1/16, p. 12). “Before the LHC started, there were huge expectations,” says Abramowicz: Some scientists claimed the LHC would quickly find supersymmetric particles. “Well, it didn’t happen,” she says.
The upcoming colliders may yet find evidence of supersymmetry, or otherwise hint at new particles, but this time around, scientists aren’t making promises.
“In the past, some people have clearly oversold what the LHC was expected to deliver,” says theoretical particle physicist Juan Rojo of Vrije University Amsterdam. When it comes to any new colliders, “we should avoid making the same mistake if we want to keep our field alive for decades to come,” he says.
Researchers around the world are now hashing out priorities, making arguments for the new colliders and other particle physics experiments. European physicists, for example, will meet in May to discuss options, working toward a document called the European Particle Physics Strategy Update, to guide research there in 2020 and beyond.
One thing is certain: The proposed accelerators would explore unknown territory, with unpredictable results. The unanswered questions surrounding the Higgs boson make it the most obvious place to look for hints of new physics, Peskin says. “It’s the place that we haven’t looked yet, so it’s really compelling.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated January 25, 2019, to add a comment from CLIC scientists regarding when construction could begin on the accelerator.