Massive discoveries: Researchers hope to find dark matter during LHC Run Two

The Large Hadron Collider. | Courtesy of CERN

The Large Hadron Collider. | Courtesy of CERN

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Large Hadron Collider is prepped for its second run and, physicists working with the project hope, more discoveries.

A team of researchers and representatives for CERN, which runs the LHC, spoke about the upcoming restart of the machine at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference Feb. 15.

The 17-mile mechanism of particle science is ready to go again this March, and improvements by CERN, the Switzerland-based European Organization for Nuclear Research, will allow the LHC to deliver beams of energy that are more than 60 percent stronger than in the first run. That improvement, researchers said, gives them about 100 times as much data to play with over the course of Run Two, depending on what particle the team is studying.

That means physicists will be able to better evaluate the Higgs boson, a particle CERN first observed in 2012. The Higgs field is what gives particles their mass, and as an explainer from The Atlantic put it, makes us, and the things around us, tangible. We would not physically exist without the Higgs field, and its existence was proven by finding the boson, which is the anchor of the field, so to speak.

Run Two will allow more of the Higgs boson to be produced than before, said Beate Heinemann of the University of California at Berkeley.

“This allows us to study this particle much more precisely,” she said. “We will in total get 10 times more Higgs bosons than we’ve already observed, and we can in detail understand whether the Higgs boson [and] all of its properties in detail look like the theory predicts or there are deviations.”

The intensity of the new LHC beams might also lead to observations of dark matter, which, although invisible, is thought to outweigh visible matter six to one. We know it exists, but we haven’t found it yet — much like the Higgs boson before it got spotted in 2012. As Williams said, that might answer some of the most important questions in physics today — or open up a whole different half to the equation that hasn’t been explained yet.

“What we know about dark matter is that it exists, and then very little after that,” said Michael Williams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Light matter is made up of many particles — quarks, leptons, gauge bosons, the Higgs boson, etc. — but little is known about the particle, or, perhaps, particles, that make up dark matter.

“There might be just as many dark matter particles or even more,” Williams said.

An artistic rendering of the Higgs field by Daniel Dominguez. | Courtesy of CERN

An artistic rendering of the Higgs field by Daniel Dominguez. | Courtesy of CERN

CERN officials hope Run Two of the LHC, which was powered down in February 2013 for this slew of upgrades, can generate enough dark matter for analysis.

But again, not much is certain. Even if dark matter is created, whether the researchers can observe it is another question.

The window for answers will open soon.

“We want to find new particles, and we don’t really care which physicists we send to Stockholm in the process,” Williams said. “It would be stepping into the unknown, which is exciting.”

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