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The Hadron Collider: What's it all about, then?

Never mind the bosons

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It could be pointed out that particle physics has other gaping explanatory holes to fill. Among these is how to account for the fact that there is so much matter in the universe, and so little anti-matter. Another is gravity. Even with the Higgs Boson on board, the Standard Model does not raise our fundamental level of understanding of gravity over that of Newton, although we seem to know a lot more about it.

Particle physics has implications for cosmology, too. Standard Model co-originator Stephen Weinberg has been among others pointing out that the "cosmological constant", a factor used to balance up theory and observations about how fast the universe is expanding, is 120 orders of magnitude (10 to the power 120, natch) smaller than expected from particle physics. That number is so humongous - it is apocryphally known as physics' worst prediction - that it begs the question of how salient its implications are to an understanding of the origin and history of the universe.

That there are notable incompatibilities between the Standard Model and Einstein's theory of general relativity, considered to hold sway in the universe at large, is not well known outside of physics. There are disparities about how space and time should be conceived.

The metrics (geometries) of general realitivity and quantum mechanics are fundamentally incompatible, as poster lbrits succinctly puts it here. Unfortunately - or conveniently - the respective suppositions about space and time of these two theories are both equally remote from the everyday understanding and use of these things in other branches of science, and indeed, physics.

At warp speed

Above, I made the analogy between the Standard Model of particle physics, and the periodic table. The latter does not predict the atomic weights of the different elements, so an analogous situation in quantum physics might not be thought a big deal. But suppose that were not so: it could smooth the way to a real rapprochement of particle physics and cosmology.

Burkhard Heim

Burkhard Heim

In 1977, a little-known physicist called Burkhard Heim published formulae for predicting the mass of particles. As the New Scientist reported, when Heim's formulae were implemented in a computer program in 1982, "[it] predicted masses of fundamental particles that matched the measured values to within the accuracy of experimental error". That's much more accurate than the best the physics establishment had been able to achieve: "the accepted means of estimating mass theoretically, known as lattice quantum chromodynamics, only gets to between 1 and 10 per cent of the experimental values."

Heim's theory is one example of sporadic attempts, away from the mainstream, to unify relativity and quantum physics. First revealed in 1957, Heim suggested that space could be locally modified to create a hyperdrive propulsion capable of making the trip to Mars in five hours. Since then it has garnered supporters, whose latest developments have caught the eye of NASA and ESA, see here.

Whether or not the Higgs boson turns up at the LHC, perhaps the perceived success of the Standard Model may be a happy accident of new particles turning up at indeterministic but opportune moments. But even if the Boson is captured, an increasing public awareness of long-standing loose threads in the broad account of the universe may make the celebrations at CERN short-lived. ®

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