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Dark matter: the next quest of Europe’s Large Hadron Collider

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based in Geneva. © CERN
Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based in Geneva. © CERN

After the discovery of the so-called ‘God particle’, scientists could turn the world's biggest particle accelerator to uncovering dark matter, or even shedding light on parallel universes.

Last summer, scientists at Europe's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced they had discovered a new particle that could be the Higgs boson, a sub-atomic particle dubbed the ‘God particle’ by the media for its believed role in bringing order to the universe after the Big Bang.

Now, scientists are working out what to do with the 27 km particle smasher, which lies 100 metres underground on the Swiss-French border, and the best target could be dark matter, the invisible substance that many believe makes up much of the universe.

‘The LHC might be the perfect machine to shed light on dark matter,’ said Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based in Geneva, Switzerland, which funds the LHC. ‘We are only at the beginning of exploring 95 % of the Universe,’ he said.

British theoretical physicist Professor Peter Higgs imagined and named the Higgs boson in the early 1960s as a mechanism by which the Universe gained mass, and confirmation of its existence would help accelerate investigation into dark matter, and into the possible existence of other dimensions or parallel universes.

‘We know of only three dimensions. These are things that are difficult to imagine, but maybe our imagination is not good enough,’ said Prof. Heuer.

‘These are things that are difficult to imagine, but maybe our imagination is not good enough.’

Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN

Scientists plan to shut down the EUR 7.5 billion particle smasher until 2015 to work on increasing its collision energy to help them explore the new world of high-energy physics that has opened up with the boson discovery. The SESAME particle smasher in Jordan is also due to come online in 2015.

In the meantime, the CERN council will meet in May in Brussels, Belgium to finalise the new strategy for the European collider.

CERN is also involved in many projects funded under FP7, the seventh framework programme funding research in Europe, and has more than 200 people working on EU projects that span areas such as health, information and communication technologies.

The European countries that contribute to CERN are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

What is the Higgs boson?

The Higgs boson is a particle, whose existence was first proposed by physicists in 1964. It is a particle that, should it exist, would support the ‘standard model’ of physics. It is the missing piece of the puzzle in particle physics.

The ‘standard model’ is to physics what the theory of evolution is to biology. It is the best explanation physicists have to explain how the building blocks of the Universe were put together. It describes 12 fundamental particles, 11 of which have already been found. Finding the last one, the Higgs boson, would validate the model – whilst ruling it out or finding something else would force a rethink on how the Universe is put together.

Scientists believe that after the Big Bang, particles in the Universe interacted with a theoretical and invisible energy field that encompassed the whole cosmos in the first billionth of a second, where they gained mass and eventually formed matter. This energy field is called the Higgs field, and the proposed Higgs boson is thus a remnant from the birth of our Universe.

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