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At the LHC, physics will collide with reality.

In a couple of months or so, scientists will celebrate the beginning of a new era in physics when the Large Hadron Collider opens for business outside Geneva. The LHC will be the world's most powerful atom smasher, colliding protons at sufficiently high energies to produce particles more massive than any ever previously produced on the planet.

If such particles exist.

As Ron Cowen describes in this issue (Page 16), LHC scientists are eager to find clear evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle that would seal the last crack in the standard model of particle physics. If the current understanding of subatomic particles is correct, the Higgs simply must exist. It's as sure a bet as the existence of the ether was at the end of the 19th century.

Back then, of course, the Michelson-Morley experiment showed that the ether didn't exist after all, revealing some serious deficiencies in prevailing ideas about light and motion. There's always a chance that physicists will be shocked again by a failure to find the Higgs.

But in a way, that wouldn't be as bad as finding the Higgs and nothing else. As Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg told Ron, that's everybody's worst fear. It would merely ratify the current theory without providing any new clues to all the problems the current theory can't solve, such as the nature of the dark matter lurking unseen in the cosmos and the identity of the repulsive force that drives the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

Failure to find the Higgs would inspire physicists to seek an entirely new approach to understanding matter, energy, space and time. So the $8 billion spent on the LHC wouldn't be wasted, even if it finds nothing.

A better payoff, though, would be the discovery of the Higgs plus other particles, presumably the "superpartners" of the known particles. Most experts would wager that such superparticles exist, differing from their ordinary alter egos in spin and mass. Finding them at the LHC would verify decades of theoretical study and strongly hint that superstring theory, championed by many and derided by others, is on the right track.

Better yet, the LHC might turn up unsuspected phenomena, utter surprises that will invigorate a new generation of physicists to forge a more profound picture of reality than theorists have so far drawn. Not only would that excite the nonscientific world and perhaps improve the prospects for future funding, it would provide fodder for future features in Science News.

--Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief
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Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR; Large Hadron Collider
Author:Siegfried, Tom
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Jul 19, 2008
Previous Article:Strategies for nurturing science's next generation.
Next Article:Scientific observations.

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