It’s been a relatively quiet summer here at CERN, but now as the leaves begin changing color and the next data-taking period draws nearer, physicists on the LHC experiments are wrapping up their first-run analyses and turning their attention towards the next data-taking period. “Run2″, expected to start in the spring of 2015, will be the biggest achievement yet for particle physics, with the LHC reaching a higher collision energy than has ever been produced in a laboratory before.
As someone who was here before the start of Run1, the vibe around CERN feels subtly different. In 2008, while the ambitious first-year physics program of ATLAS and CMS was quite broad in scope, the Higgs prospects were certainly the focus. Debates (and even some bets) about when we would find the Higgs boson – or even if we would find it – cropped up all over CERN, and the buzz of excitement could be felt from meeting rooms to cafeteria lunch tables.
Countless hours were also spent in speculation about what it would mean for the field if we *didn’t* find the elusive particle that had evaded discovery for so long, but it was Higgs-centric discussion nonetheless. If the Higgs boson did exist, the LHC was designed to find this missing piece of the Standard Model, so we knew we were eventually going to get our answer one way or another.
Now, more than two years after the Higgs discovery and armed with a more complete picture of the Standard Model, attention is turning to the new physics that may lie beyond it. The LHC is a discovery machine, and was built with the hope of finding much more than predicted Standard Model processes. Big questions are being asked with more tenacity in the wake of the Higgs discovery: Will we find supersymmetry? will we understand the nature of dark matter? is the lack of “naturalness” in the Standard Model a fundamental problem or just the way things are?
The feeling of preparedness is different this time around as well. In 2008, besides the data collected in preliminary cosmic muon runs used to commission the detector, we could only rely on simulation to prepare the early analyses, inducing a bit of skepticism in how much we could trust our pre-run physics and performance expectations. Compounded with the LHC quenching incident after the first week of beam on September 19, 2008 that destroyed over 30 superconducting magnets and delayed collisions until the end of 2009, no one knew what to expect.
Fast forward to 2014, we have an increased sense of confidence stemming from our Run1 experience, having put our experiments to the test all the way from data acquisition to event reconstruction to physics analysis to publication…done at a speed which surpassed even our own expectations. We know to what extent we can rely the simulation, and know how to measure the performance of our detectors.
We also have a better idea of what our current analysis limitations are, and have been spending this LHC shutdown period working to improve them. Working meeting agendas, usually with the words “Run2 Kick-off” or “Task Force” in the title, have been filled with discussions of how we will handle data in 2015, with what precision can we measure objects in the detector, and what our early analysis priorities should be.
The Run1 dataset was also used as a dress rehearsal for future runs, where for example, many searches employed novel techniques to reconstruct highly boosted final states often predicted in new physics scenarios. The aptly-named BOOST conference recently held at UCL this past August highlighted some of the most state-of-the-art tools currently being developed by both theorists and experimentalists in order to extend the discovery reach for new fundamental particles further into the multi-TeV region.
Even prior to Run1, we knew that such new techniques would have to be validated in data in order to convince ourselves they would work, especially in the presence of extreme pileup (ie: multiple, less-interesting interactions in the proton bunches we send around the LHC ring…a side effect from increased luminosity). While the pileup conditions in 7 and 8 TeV data were only a taste of what we’ll see in Run2 and beyond, Run1 gave us the opportunity to try out these new techniques in data.
Conversations around CERN these days sound similar to those we heard before the start of Run1…what if we discover something new, or what if we don’t, and what will that mean for the field of particle physics? Except this time, the prospect of not finding anything is less exciting. The Standard Model Higgs boson was expected to be in a certain energy range accessible at the LHC, and if it was excluded it would have been a major revelation.
There are plenty of well-motivated theoretical models (such as supersymmetry) that predict new interactions to emerge around the TeV scale, but in principle there may not be anything new to discover at all until the GUT scale. This dearth of any known physics processes spanning a range of orders of magnitude in energy is often referred to as the “electroweak desert.”
Particle physics is entering a new era. Was the discovery of the Higgs just the beginning, and there is something unexpected to find in the new data? or will we be left disappointed? Either way, the LHC and its experiments struggled through the growing pains of Run1 to produce one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century, and if new physics is produced in the collisions of Run2, we’ll be ready to find it.