Particle physics may have reached the end of the line

By Sabine Hossenfelder

Image: CERN
CERN’s press release of plans for a larger particle collider, which I wrote about last week, made international headlines. Unfortunately, most articles about the topic just repeat the press-release, and do not explain how much the situation in particle physics has changed with the LHC data. Since the late 1960s, when physicists hit on the “particle zoo” at nuclear energies, they always had a good reason to build a larger collider. That’s because their theories of elementary matter were incomplete. But now, with the Higgs-boson found in 2012, their theory – the “standard model of particle physics” – is complete. It’s done. There’s nothing missing. All Pokemon caught. The Higgs was the last good prediction that particle physicists had. This prediction dates back to the 1960s and it was based on sound mathematics. In contrast to this, the current predictions for new particles at a larger collider – eg supersymmetric partner particles or dark matter particles – are not based on sound mathematics. These predictions are based on what is called an “argument from naturalness” and those arguments are little more than wishful thinking dressed in equations.

I have laid out my reasoning for why those predictions are no good in great detail in my book (and also in this little paper). But it does not matter whether you believe (or even understand) my arguments, you only have to look at the data to see that particle physicists’ predictions for physics beyond the standard model have, in fact, not worked for more than 30 years.

Fact is, particle physicists have predicted dark matter particles since the mid-1980s. None of those have been seen.  Fact is, particle physicists predicted grand unified theories starting also in the 1980s. To the extent that those can be ruled out, they have been ruled out.

Fact is, they predicted that supersymmetric particles and/or large additional dimensions of space should become observable at the LHC. According to those predictions, this should have happened already. It did not.

The important thing is now that those demonstrably flawed methods were the only reason to think the LHC should discover something fundamentally new besides the Higgs. With this method of prediction not working, there is now no reason to think that the LHC in its upcoming runs, or a next larger collider, will see anything besides the physics predicted by the already known theories.

Of course it may happen. I am not saying that I know a larger collider will not find something new. It is possible that we get lucky. I am simply saying that we currently have no prediction that indicates a larger collider would lead to a breakthrough. The standard model may well be it. This situation is unprecedented in particle physics. The only reliable prediction we currently have for physics beyond the standard model is that we should eventually see effects of quantum gravity. But for that we would have to reach energies 13 orders of magnitude higher than what even the next collider would deliver. It’s way out of reach. The only thing we can reliably say a next larger collider will do is measure more precisely the properties of the already known fundamental particles. That it may tell us something about dark matter, or dark energy, or the matter-antimatter symmetry is a hope, not a prediction.

Particle physicists had a good case to build the LHC with the prediction of the Higgs-boson. But with the Higgs found, the next larger collider has no good motivation. The year is 2019, not 1999.