The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), currently the world’s largest particle accelerator and playground to physicists at CERN, could be about to have its name challenged. On January 15th the CERN team revealed plans for a new colossal accelerator, with a working name, the Future Circular Collider (FCC). The plan envisages a 100km ring in the Geneva basin (compared to the LHC’s 27km), with a power to collide fundamental particles together that is almost tenfold that of its predecessor. The team believe that the debris from these collisions will help uncover the hidden truths of our universe.
The Standard Model of particle physics is the basis of our current best understanding of the sub-atomic realm. The model postulates a conglomeration of different fundamental particles, that together explain the behaviour of the forces and matter that we observe in nature. A recent triumph of the LHC in 2012 (recent as major discoveries in particle physics go) was the discovery of Higgs Boson, the elusive last member of the Standard Model to be observed experimentally. The Higgs is believed to be the particle that explains the existence of the range of masses of different particles and was a crucial missing piece to fully validate the Standard Model.
However, there is still a lot about our universe that we cannot describe with the Standard Model. To be precise, the known constituents make up only 5% of the whole universe. The remaining 95% of the universe is made up of what physicists call dark matter and dark energy. The LHC has provided no insight into the nature of these mysterious entities and it is believed that collisions at a much higher energy are necessary to unlock their secrets. Additionally, the current model cannot unite the forces that govern the quantum world with the force of gravity. Since 1905 there has been an incompatibility in theoretical physics, between quantum mechanics (our best theory of the very small) and general relativity (our best theory of the very large). By seeking to probe physics beyond the Standard Model, the FCC represents a chance for physicists to find a way to break this stalemate.
Such bold ideas come with a very hefty price tag – £9 billion for the least expensive design, rising to £20 billion for the full capabilities that the CERN team are hoping for. Such a cost has sparked serious criticism at a time when issues of environmental sustainability and climate change are at the forefront of many discussions amongst scientific and political communities. A crucial problem lies within the very nature of the quest, a probing of the unknown. There is no guarantee that the energy at which the FCC is built to operate, will be the energy at which currently hidden physics becomes visible. The entire endeavour could function at an energy way off, or just short of that necessary to reveal the currently unseen particles. Some argue this is too large a gamble on resources that could deliver tangible, guaranteed benefits to humanity’s very human problems of the environment and health. Nevertheless, lead scientists at CERN, such as Director-General Professor Fabiola Gioanotti and senior physicist John Womersley, are keen to emphasise the peripheral advancements to technology and benefits to society that the endeavour would bring. Being at the very forefront of science, it is argued the FCC will unearth innovative technologies during its design, construction and operation phases; just as electronics, the internet and superconducting magnets in MRI machines all arose from previous enterprises in fundamental physics.
The FCC has now been proposed to the European Strategy for Particle Physics. A decision is expected in 2020 and if accepted, the initial phases of the collider would be up and running between 2040-2050. CERN scientists firmly believe the creation of this facility is the necessary next step towards uncovering nature’s secrets, but such a gigantic vision will no doubt require global support from both national governments and the public. Although the potential challenges of the FCC are enormous, its potential impact on humanity’s understanding of the universe is arguably much larger. To stop pushing the limits of our exploration, is to stop discovering and this is something CERN physicists are determined not to allow.
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