Looming Crisis in Physics, Answer Could Be in Other Dimensions

September 10, 2014 Updated: September 11, 2014

The Large Hadron Collider earned its fame finding the Higgs boson particle, the so-called “God particle,” but it failed to find something very important it was looking for—superpartner particles. The search for superpartner particles has frustrated physicists to the point of figurative nail-biting—the particles aren’t where they were very much expected to be, and if they don’t exist, a paradigm shift could be imminent. 

A principle called supersymmetry (casually referred to as “Susy,” pronounced “Suzy”) is supposed to balance the equation of our existence. According to Susy, every particle has a superpartner particle that we haven’t yet been able to detect.

“If superpartners are not found, we face a paradigm rupture in our basic grasp of quantum physics. Already this prospect is inspiring a radical rethinking of basic phenomena that underlie the fabric of the universe,” wrote Maria Spiropulu, an experimental particle physicist who works on the search for Susy using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist based at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, in a Scientific American article published May. They continued: “Indeed, results from the first run of the LHC have ruled out almost all the best-studied versions of supersymmetry. The negative results are beginning to produce if not a full-blown crisis in particle physics, then at least a widespread panic.”

The LHC, run by CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or European Council for Nuclear Research), is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It essentially hurls particles at each other, monitoring the impact. An anomalous event could signal contact with a superpartner particle otherwise invisible to our devices.

Scientists are banking on Susy to answer questions about why particles have the masses they do, why forces have the strength they do, and generally why the universe looks the way it does, explained Spiropulu and Lykken. More than 10,000 scientific papers have been written about Susy, said Fermilab’s Dr. Don Lincoln in a video explaining Susy (see above). 

What if this popular principle turns out to be wrong?

Alternatives in Other Dimensions

Physicists are thinking of alternatives, while holding on to the hope of finding Susy. Many think that even if most Susy theories are shot down, some new theory will emerge that still includes the principle of supersymmetry, but within a different framework.

The LHC will resume its search for the superpartner particles in 2015, but hopes are not high after the first failure. The particles are only expected to exist within a certain margin. They can’t be too much smaller or too much bigger, otherwise they would throw the cosmic equation out of balance rather than verifying it. Further, complicated modifications would be needed.

The most likely solution could be found in other dimensions, said physicist and engineer Alan Ross Hugenot. These other dimensions, theorize physicists, may exist at a microscopic level so small we haven’t yet seen them. They may give us another perspective on why things work the way they do in the 3-D world we can perceive.

This new perspective could make the search for the superpartner particles unnecessary, or signal an unexpected place to look for them. 

The website “Why String Theory,” supported by the University of Oxford, illustrates well how changing dimensional perspectives can really shift our understanding of particle physics: “Imagine watching a faraway ship approaching port. It starts out looking like a zero-dimensional dot on the horizon. Soon you realise it has a mast pointing high into the sky: it now appears to be a one-dimensional line. Next, its sails come into view making it seem two-dimensional. As it nears the dock you finally notice that it has a long deck, the third dimension.”

Expanding further beyond the dimensions we can see, who knows what we may find out about the nature of the particles we are studying—the particles that make up our bodies, our food, our whole universe. A paradigm shift in particle physics means a shift in how we view our existence. 

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