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Posts Tagged ‘high energy physics’

by Karen McNulty Walsh

With the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, folks unfamiliar with the intricacies of particle physics might think the field has reached its end. But physicists gathered at the Large Hadron Collider Physics Conference in New York City June 2-7 say they are eager to move forward. Even amid discussions of tight budgets that make some proposed projects appear impossible, the general tenor, as expressed by leaders in the field, is that the future holds great potential for even more significant discoveries.

Physicist panel

Physicists joined New York Times science correspondent Dennis Overbye for a discussion on the future of the field.

At a session devoted to reflection and the future of the field, held Friday, June 6, Fabiola Gianotti, a particle physicist at Europe’s CERN laboratory (home of the LHC) and spokesperson for the LHC’s ATLAS experiment at the time of the Higgs discovery, said, “There is challenging work for everyone to make the impossible possible.” In fact, said James Siegrist, Associate Director of the Office of High Energy Physics within the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, “I think the promise of the physics has never been greater.”

Co-sponsored by DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and Columbia University, the week-long meeting featured updates on key findings from the LHC’s four experiments (including a possible hint of new physics), advances in theory, plans for future upgrades, and even future colliders—as well as apanel discussion moderated by Dennis Overbye, a science correspondent for the New York Times.

“We had a very successful conference with more than 300 participants discussing an impressive array of results from the recent LHC run,” said Brookhaven physicist Srini Rajagopalan, U.S. ATLAS Operations Program Manager and a co-organizer of the meeting. He also noted the extremely positive response to an open-to-the-public screening of Particle Fever, a documentary film that follows six scientists during the years leading up to the discovery of the Higgs boson. “I was simply amazed at the public interest in what we do. From young school students to senior citizens, people thronged to watch the movie and continued to ask questions late into the night.”

What keeps you up at night?

At Friday’s panel session, the Times’ Overbye had some questions of his own, perhaps more pointed that the public’s. He asked whether particle physicists’ streak of discoveries could be continued, whether the “glory days” for the U.S. were over, and what keeps physicists up at night. The panelists were realistic about challenges and the need for smart choices and greater globalization. But a spirit of optimism prevailed.

Natalie Roe, Director of the Physics Division at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—the first to respond—said, “I’m going to flip the question [of what keeps me up and night] and answer what gets me up in the morning.” Following a long period of experimental and theoretical successes, including the discovery of the Higgs, she said, “this is a very exciting time. There are still a few remaining details … dark matter and dark energy. And these are more than details; they are 95 percent of the universe!” With a long list of techniques available to get answers, she said, there is much work to be done.

University of California, Santa Cruz, physicist Steve Ritz, who recently chaired the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) and presented its recommendations for the future of the field, emphasized the importance of “telling our story,” staging and prioritizing future projects, and “aspiring to a greater program” that continues investments in crucial research and development to lay the foundation for future facilities.

Great technology progress, great challenges

In an overview talk that preceded the panel discussion, Gianotti presented a range of such future projects, including two possible linear accelerators, one in Japan the other at CERN, and two possible circular colliders, one in China and one at CERN. The latter, dubbed FCC, would be a proton-proton collider 80-100 kilometers in circumference—on the scale of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) once planned for and later cancelled in the U.S. Such a machine would push beyond the research limits of even the most ambitious upgrades proposed for the LHC.

Those upgrades, planned for data taking in Phase I in 2020 and Phase II in 2025, will begin the exploration of the coupling of the Higgs with other particles to explore the mechanism by which the Higgs generates mass, “electroweak symmetry breaking,” and searches for new physics beyond the standard model and into the realm of dark matter.

But, to really get at the heart of those questions and possibly reveal unknown physics, the scientists say the need for even higher precision and higher energy is clear.

Journey to the dark side

“Our elders had it easy compared to our students,” said Siegrist, describing the physics challenges now open to exploration. He likened this moment in time to the end of a video game his son had played where, “at the end of the game, you end up on ‘the dark side’ and have to start again.” In physics, he said, the dark sector—exploring dark matter and dark energy—is going to be equally challenging to everything that has come before.

To those who say building the future machines needed for this journey is impossible, Gianotti says, “didn’t the LHC also look close to impossible in the 1980s?” The path forward, she emphasized, is to innovate.

“Accelerator R&D is very important,” said Ritz, noting that, “anything we can do to design these machines to cost less” in terms of construction and operation should be done. “We need to be impatient about this,” he said. “We need to ask more and jump in more.”

Panelist Nima Arkani-Hamed, a theorist at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University and Director of the Center for Future High Energy Physics in Beijing, China, likely agrees. He acknowledges the difficult task facing U.S. leadership in high-energy physics. “They are trying to make due with a budget that’s two or three times less than what our vision and this country deserves, and they are doing a good job,” he said. “But I worry that our generation will be viewed as the one that dropped the ball.”

“The sequence of steps for the next few decades is possible,” he added later. “It’s just a matter of will, not technology.”

But because of the scale and cost of future projects, he, like others, emphasized that “we will need the whole world and new pockets of resources and talent.”

The value of collaboration, competition, and globalization

Sergio Bertolucci, Director for Research and Computing at CERN, agreed. “We have been international, but we need to be truly global.”

Such cooperation and competition among nations is good for the field, Ritz emphasized. “We are intensely competitive. We want to be the ones to discover [something new.] But we are also cooperative because we can’t do it alone.”

Panelist Jerry Blazey, Assistant Director for Physical Sciences in the
Office of Science and Technology Policy, DOE’s Siegrist, and others agreed that the LHC is a great model for the field to stand behind and emulate for future collaborative projects. Blazey and Siegrist said OSTP and DOE would work together to discuss ways to smooth the process for such future multinational collaborations and to implement the recommendations of the P5 report.

These include future U.S. work at the LHC, an internationalized Long Baseline Neutrino Facility located at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and a role in Japan’s proposed linear collider, as well as continued investments in the technologies needed for future experiments. Said University of California, Irvine, physicist Andrew Lankford, chair of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) to whom the report was delivered, the P5 report describes a field optimized for scientific progress. “It’s a ten year strategic plan—way more than a collection of cool experiments,” he said.

And it emphasizes the value of international competition and cooperation—perhaps one of the biggest successes of particle physics, aside from the breathtaking discoveries. Turning again to the example of the LHC collaborations, Ritz said, “50 years ago some of these people were in countries that were trying to kill one another. Now we don’t even think about what country they are from.”

As Brookhaven’s Rajagopalan summed up, “It is an exciting time for our field as we plan to move forward with ambitious global projects to address the fundamental questions of nature.”

Brookhaven Lab’s particle physics research is supported by the DOE Office of Science.

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Karen McNulty Walsh is a science writer in the Media & Communications Office at Brookhaven National Laboratory.


I know that the majority of the posts I’ve written have focused on physics issues and results, specifically those related to LHCb. I’d like to take this opportunity, however, to focus on the development of the field of High Energy Physics (HEP) and beyond.

As some of you know, in 2013, we witnessed an effectively year-long conversation about the state of our field, called Snowmass. This process is meant to collect scientists in the field, young and old alike, and ask them what the pressing issues for the development of our field are. In essence, it’s a “hey, stop working on your analysis for a second and let’s talk about the big issues” meeting. They came out with a comprehensive list of questions and also a bunch of working papers about the discussions. If you’re interested, go look at the website. The process was separated into “frontiers,” or groups that the US funding agencies put together to divide the field into the groups that they saw fit. I’ll keep my personal views on the “frontiers” language for a different day, and instead share a much more apt interpretation of the frontiers, which emerged from Jonathan Asaadi, of Snowmass Young and Quantum Diaries. He emphasizes that we are coming together to tackle the biggest problems as a team, as opposed to dividing into groups, illustrated as Voltron in his slide below.


Slide from presentation of Jonathan Asaadi at the USLUO (now USLUA) 2013 annual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. The point here is collaboration between frontiers to solve the biggest problems, rather than division into separate groups.

And that’s just what happened. While I willingly admit that I had zero involvement in this process aside from taking the Snowmass Young survey, I still agree with the conclusions which were reached about what the future of our field should look like. Again, I highly encourage you to go look at the outcome.

Usually, this would be the end of the story, but this year, the recommendations from Snowmass were passed to a group called P5 (Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel). The point of this panel was to review the findings of Snowmass and come up with a larger plan about how the future of HEP will proceed. The big ideas had effectively been gathered, now the hard questions about which projects can pursue these questions effectively are being asked. This specifically focuses on what the game plan will be for HEP over the next 10-20 years, and identifies the distinct physics reach in a variety of budget situations. Their recommendation will be passed to HEPAP (High Energy Physics Advisory Panel), which reviews the findings, then passes its recommendation to the US government and funding agencies. The P5 findings will be presented to HEPAP  on May 22nd, 2014 at 10 AM, EST. I invite you to listen to the presentation live here. The preliminary executive report and white paper can be found after 10 EST on the 22nd of May on the same site, as I understand.

This is a big deal.

There are two main points here. First, 10-20 years is a long time, and any sort of recommendation about the future of the field over such a long period will be a hard one. P5 has gone through the hard numbers under many different budget scenarios to maximize the science reach that the US is capable of. Looking at the larger political picture, in 2013, the US also entered the Sequester, which cut spending across the board and had wide implications for not only the US but worldwide. This is a testament to the tight budget constraints that we are working in now, and will most certainly face in the future. Even considering such a process as P5 shows that the HEP community recognizes this point, and understands that without well defined goals and tough considerations of how to achieve them, we will endanger the future funding of any project in the US or with US involvement.

Without this process, we will endanger future funding of US HEP.

We can take this one step further with a bit more concrete example. The majority of HEP workings are done through international collaboration, both experiment and theory alike. If any member of such a collaboration does not pull their weight, it puts the entire project into jeopardy. Take, for example, the US ATLAS and CMS programs, which have 23% and 33% involvement from the US, respectively, in both analysis and detector R&D. If these projects were cut drastically over the next years, there would have to be a massive rethinking about the strategies of their upgrades, not to mention possible lack of manpower. Not only would this delay one of the goals outlined by Snowmass, to use the Higgs as a discovery tool, but would also put into question the role of the US in the future of HEP. This is a simple example, but is not outside the realm of possibility.

The second point is how to make sure a situation like this does not happen.

I cannot say that communication of the importance of this process has been stellar. A quick google search yields no mainstream news articles about the process, nor the impact. In my opinion, this is a travesty and that’s the reason why I am writing this post. Symmetry Magazine also, just today, came out with an article about the process. Young members of our community who were not necessarily involved in Snowmass, but seem to know about Snowmass, do not really know about P5 or HEPAP. I may be wrong, but I draw this conclusion from a number of conversations I’ve had at CERN with US postdocs and students. Nonetheless, people are quite adamant about making sure that the US does continue to play a role in the future of HEP. This is true across HEP, the funding agencies and the members of Congress. (I can say this as I went on a trip with the USLUO, FNAL and SLAC representatives to lobby congress on behalf of HEP in March of this year, and this is the sentiment which I received.) So the first step is informing the public about what we’re doing and why.

The stuff we do is really cool! We’re all organized around how to solve the biggest issues facing physics! Getting the word out about this is key.

Go talk to your neighbor!

Go talk to your local physicist!

Go talk to your congressperson!

Just talk about physics! Talk about why it excites you and talk about why it’s interesting to explore! Maybe leave out the CLs plots, though. If you didn’t know, there’s also a whole mess of things that HEP is good for besides colliding particles! See this site for a few.

The final step is understanding the process. The biggest worry I have is what happens after HEPAP reviews the P5 recommendations. We, as a community, have to be willing to endure the pains of this process. Good science will be excluded. However, there are not infinite funds, nor was a guarantee of funding ever given. Recognition of this, while focusing on the big problems at hand and thinking about how to work within the means allowed is *the point* of the conversation. The better question is, will we emerge from the process unified or split? Will we get behind the Snowmass process and answer the questions posed to us, or fight about how to answer them? I certainly hope the answer is that we will unify, as we unified for Snowmass.

An allegorical example is from a slide from Nima Arkani-Hamed at Pheno2014, shown in the picture.

One slide from Nima Arkani-Hamed's presentation at Pheno2014

One slide from Nima Arkani-Hamed’s presentation at Pheno2014


The take home point is this: If we went through the exercise of Snowmass, and cannot pull our efforts together to the wishes of the community, are we going to survive? I would prefer to ask a different question: Will we not, as a community, take the opportunity to answer the biggest questions facing physics today?

We’ll see on the 22nd and beyond.



Update: May 27, 2014


As posted in the comments, the full report can be found here, the presentation given by Steve Ritz, chair of P5 can be found here, and the full P5 report can be found here.  Additionally, Symmetry Magazine has a very nice piece on the report itself. As they state in the update at the bottom of the page, HEPAP voted to accept the report.