IceCube is an example of how big science, especially particle physics, now often operates on intergenerational timescales. It took 30 years from the IceCube idea to actually drilling a neutrino sensor into one cubic kilometer of Antarctic ice to pinpointing the high-energy neutrino source. During that time, key people retire, pass away, or move to projects that provide more instant gratification. Whitehorn’s experience is the exception, not the rule—many scientists spend years, decades, or even entire careers searching for results that never came up.
The discovery of the Higgs boson took longer than the extragalactic neutrino: from initial discussions to building the world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), to now famous The discovery of the particle was announced in 2012, which lasted 36 years.
For Peter Higgs, then 83, the detection of his eponymous particle was a satisfying end to his career. He shed tears in the auditorium as he made the announcement — exactly 48 years after he and others first proposed the Higgs field and its related elementary particles in 1964. For Clara Nelister, a PhD student working on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, it marked an exciting start as a physicist.
Nellist and a friend showed up at midnight before the announcement, packed with pillows, blankets and popcorn, and camped outside the auditorium, hoping for a seat. “I do it for the holidays,” she said. “Then why didn’t I do what might be the biggest physics announcement of my career?” Her determination paid off. “Hearing the phrase ‘I think we had it!’ was amazing. The cheers in the room were amazing.”
The Higgs particle is the final piece of the puzzle, and it’s our best description of what constitutes the universe at the smallest scale: the Standard Model of particle physics. But this description cannot be the final word. It doesn’t explain why neutrinos have mass, or why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe. It does not include gravity. Another point is that it has nothing to say about 95% of the universe: dark matter and dark energy.
“We’re in a very interesting period because when we started, we knew that the LHC would either find the Higgs particle or rule it out entirely,” Nelister said. “Right now we have a lot of unanswered questions, but we don’t have a direct roadmap that just follow these steps and we’ll find out.”
Ten years after Higgs’ discovery, how does she deal with the possibility that the LHC may no longer answer these fundamental questions? “I’m very pragmatic,” she said. “It’s a bit frustrating, but as an experimental physicist, I trust the data, so if we do an analysis and get a zero result, then we move on and look for something different — we’re just measuring big Something that nature provides.”
The LHC isn’t the only large scientific facility looking for answers to these existential questions. ADMX may be the garage band of the LHC Stadium rockers in terms of size, funding, and people, but it also happens to be one of the best lenses in the world to reveal the hypothetical axion particle, a prime candidate for dark matter. Unlike the LHC, ADMX researchers have charted a clear path to find what they’re looking for.