With the Large Hadron Collider coming online soon, people are starting to discuss what might discoveries might be made there and when we can expect results. (Well, at least it’s starting to be discussed in the blogosphere as well as in more popular news outlets. Experts in the field have of course been discussing these things for much longer.) Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance has the most interesting take that I’ve seen for a semi-informed audience. He even gives odds on various discoveries that may or may not be found at the LHC. It’s a very interesting and entertaining article, and I recommend that you read it, if you haven’t already. So… time to start placing your bets!
I’m actually kind of surprised that I can’t seem to find any online bookies taking bets on the results at the LHC. In addition to the odds posted on Cosmic Variance about what new discoveries will be made, there’s a bunch of other stuff to bet on: What’s the over-under on the Higgs mass? When will it be found? What will the doomsday prophets say when we’re not eaten by micro black holes?
Anyway, in spite of the lack of traditional betting on the LHC, many particle theorists have much more at stake on the experiments at CERN: the validity of their work throughout their careers. With the new range of energies to be explored, the plethora of predictions that theorists have made over the last few decades will begin to sort themselves out. With all this at stake, it’s only natural that each scientist is probably rooting for a spectacular confirmation of his pet theory within the next few years.
As a student preparing to enter the field of theoretical particle physics, the results at the LHC have a large amount of personal meaning for me as well.
I know that there’s no big, blinking lights at CERN set to go off the moment that the Higgs boson or a superpartner is discovered, causing confetti to rain down from the ceiling. There will be picobytes of data to be painstakingly analyzed before anyone can say with any certainty what new physics has been discovered, if anything. Everyone wants to know how long this will take, but what I really want to know is, will it happen before I have to choose my thesis topic?
What if a shower of new particles is discovered? Does that mean supersymmetry is right? If SUSY is confirmed, will that make it a great time to start studying it myself, or will it become a stagnant subject, leaving researchers to simply sort out the messy details?
What if the community is shocked to find no evidence of the higgs? Will that prompt a flurry of productive activity, or will my adviser be left scratching his head, unsure of how to guide my thesis research?
What if something completely unexpected is found? Will it allow me to be in the exciting ground floor of a brand-new subject, or will it delay my progress towards a PhD because there is no expert to guide me in exploring this new area?
Should I avoid focusing on LHC physics altogether? There are plenty of areas within particle theory that don’t deal directly with anything at the LHC. Maybe one of those subjects would be safer. But by playing it safe, I could miss out on a great opportunity.
What happens to the motivation of a senior physicist whose most important contributions are refuted by experimental evidence? Conversely, what happens if everything you’ve theorized has been spectacularly confirmed?
Or maybe the presence of new experimental evidence will completely reinvigorate the entire field of particle physics, giving me plenty of exciting and interesting topics to pursue. That’s what I’m rooting for.
Of course, I shouldn’t worry too much about thesis research, considering that I still have to take my introductory classes. But thinking about the excitement of new physics at the LHC is so much more interesting than thinking about quantum mechanics homework in the fall and the dreaded Jackson E&M in the spring.