“Science enhances the moral value of life, because it furthers a love of truth and reverence—love of truth displaying itself in the constant endeavor to arrive at a more exact knowledge of the world of mind and matter around us, and reverence, because every advance in knowledge brings us face to face with the mystery of our own being.” -Max Planck
Our standard model of elementary particles and forces — with the recent discovery of the Higgs boson now behind us — has now had every expected particle within it discovered, and we can explain where the elementary particles get their masses from.
That’s great, but it’s not like science ends now that we’ve finished one part of the puzzle: an important question is “what comes next?” I’d like you to consider the following part of the standard model chart, above.
On the one hand, the weak, electromagnetic, and strong forces can all be quite important, depending on the energy of the interaction. But gravitation? Not so much. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hearing a couple of talks from Lisa Randall, who spoke at great length about this puzzle, which I would call the greatest unsolved problem in theoretical physics: the Hierarchy Problem.
Gravity is literally forty orders of magnitude weaker than all the other known forces in the Universe. (That means the gravitational force is a factor of 1040 weaker than the other three forces. Or — and I’ll write it out just this once — we’d need to increase its strength by 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in order to have it be comparable to the other known forces.)
You can’t just “make” a proton weigh 1020 times as much as it would normally; that’s what it would take to make gravity bring two protons together, overcoming the electromagnetic force.
Instead, if you want to make a reaction like this happen, you need something like 1056 protons held together through gravity; that’s the minimum mass of a successful star.
That’s the way our Universe works, but we don’t understand why. Why is gravity so much weaker than all the other forces? Why is the “gravitational charge” (i.e., mass) so much weaker than an electric or color charge?
That’s what the Hierarchy Problem is. Thankfully, we have some good ideas as to what the solution might be, and a tool to help us investigate whether any of these possibilities could be correct.
So far, the Large Hadron Collider — the highest-energy particle collider ever developed — has reached unprecedented energies under laboratory conditions here on Earth, collecting huge amounts of data and reconstructing exactly what took place at the collision points.
This includes the creation of new, never-before-seen particles (like the Higgs), our old, familiar standard model particles (quarks, leptons, and gauge bosons), and it can — if they exist — produce any other particles that may be beyond the standard model.
There are four conceivable ways — i.e., four good ideas — that I am aware of to solve the hierarchy problem. The good news for experiment is that if any of these solutions are the one that nature has chosen, the LHC should find it!
I’m not one to pull any punches, and so I’ll just come out and tell you that other than the single Higgs boson whose discovery was announced earlier this year, no new particles have been found at the LHC. Not yet, anyway. Furthermore, the particle that was found was completely consistent with the standard model Higgs; there is no statistically significant result that strongly suggests any new physics has been observed beyond the Standard Model.
That said, what are the possible, reasonable solutions to the hierarchy problem?
1.) Supersymmetry, or SUSY for short. Supersymmetry is a special symmetry that would cause the normal masses — which would be sufficiently large so that gravity was of comparable strength to the other forces — to cancel to a high degree of accuracy. The symmetry also entails that every particle in the standard model has a superparticle partner, and (not shown) that there are five Higgs particles (see here for why) and five Higgs superpartners. If this symmetry exists, it must be broken, or the superpartners would have the same exact masses as the normal particles, and hence would’ve been discovered by now.
If SUSY is to exist at the appropriate scale to solve the hierarchy problem, the LHC — once it reaches its full energy of 14 TeV — ought to find at least one superpartner, as well as at least a second Higgs particle. Otherwise, the existence of very heavy superpartners would create yet another puzzling hierarchy problem, one with no good solution. (For those of you wondering, the absence of SUSY particles at all energies would be enough to invalidate string theory, as supersymmetry is a requirement of string theories that contain the standard model of particles.)
2.) Technicolor. No, this isn’t a 1950s cartoon; technicolor is the term for physics theories that require new gauge interactions, and also that have either no Higgs particles or unstable/unobservable (i.e., composite) Higgses. There would also be an interesting new slew of observable particles. Although this could have been a plausible solution in principle, the recent discovery of what appears to be a fundamental, spin-0 scalar at the right energy to be the Higgs seems to invalidate this possible solution to the hierarchy problem.
There are two other possibilities, one which is much more promising than the other, and both involving extra dimensions.
3.) Warped Extra Dimensions. This theory — pioneered by the aforementioned Lisa Randall along with Raman Sundrum — hold that gravity is just as strong as the other forces, but not in our three-spatial-dimension Universe. It lives in a different three-spatial-dimension Universe that’s offset by some tiny amount — like 10-31 meters — from our own Universe in the fourth spatial dimension. (Or, as the diagram above indicates, in the fifth dimension, once time is included.) This is interesting, because it would be stable, and it could provide a possible explanation as to why our Universe began expanding so rapidly at the beginning (warped spacetime can do that), so it’s got some compelling perks.
What it should also include are an extra set of particles; not supersymmetric particles, but Kaluza-Klein particles, which are a direct consequence of there being extra dimensions. For what it’s worth, there has been a hint from one experiment in space that there might be a Kaluza-Klein particle at an energy of about 600 GeV, or about 5 times the mass of the Higgs.
This is by no means a certainty, as it’s just an excess of observed electrons over the expected background, but it’s worth keeping in mind as the LHC eventually ramps up to full energy; a new particle that’s below 1,000 GeV in mass should be within range of this machine.
4.) Large Extra Dimensions. Instead of being warped, the extra dimensions could be “large”, where large is only large relative to the warped ones, which were 10-31 meters in scale. The “large” extra dimensions would be around millimeter-sized, which meant that new particles would start showing up right around the scale that the LHC is capable of probing. Again, there would be new Kaluza-Klein particles, and this could be a possible solution to the hierarchy problem.
But one extra consequence of this model would be that gravity would radically depart from Newton’s law at distances below a millimeter, something that’s been incredibly difficult to test. Modern experimentalists, however, are more than up to the challenge.
Tiny, supercooled cantilevers, loaded with piezoelectric crystals (crystals that release electrical energies when their shape is changed / when they are torqued) can be created with spacings of mere microns between them, as shown above. This new technique allows us to place constraints that if there are “large” extra dimensions, they’re smaller than around 5-10 microns. This means that if there are large extra dimensions, they’re at energies that are both inaccessible to the LHC and that do not solve the hierarchy problem.
Of course, there either could be a completely different solution to the hierarchy problem or there may be no solution at all; this could just be the way nature is, and there may be no explanation for it. But science will never progress unless we try, and that’s what these ideas and searches are: our attempt to move our knowledge of the Universe forward. And as always, I can’t wait to see what — beyond the already-discovered Higgs boson — the LHC turns up!