Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/1/2015 (1853 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It sounds esoteric, like an episode of The Big Bang Theory, and maybe someday it will be. But even in the fields of physics, supersymmetry is esoteric. What is supersymmetry? What is the calamity? Why should you care?
What it is... is an idea: particular superheroes! Here's their story.
The standard model is the crown jewel of physics. All you need to know is it describes subatomic particles and the forces that affect them. It has 16 kinds of particles: six quarks, six leptons and four bosons. Lately, headlines tell us add the Higgs. The standard model depicts the world at the smallest scale physics has reached so far. With exquisite precision, it calculates results of smashing particles. But it explains nothing. Indeed, it leads to unsolved mysteries like: Why doesn't the entire universe collapse into black holes? And: What is dark matter?
Some 40 years ago, our particular superheroes came to the rescue. Imagine a comic-book world called superspace. A fourth dimension where each particle physicists have found has a partner-particle they haven't found. Why a comic-book world? Well, the whole idea of supersymmetry is still imaginary. Decades ago, the authors of Superspace (a serious text) said:
The most striking feature of the relation between supersymmetry and the observed world is the absence of any experimental evidence for the former in the latter.
This is still true. Even so, for four decades physicists have manipulated the math of superparticles to show how they solve standard model mysteries. Meanwhile, they have built the world's biggest machine to find experimental evidence of superparticles. It's a particle smasher (the Large Hadron Collider or LHC). It got off to a shaky start. But now it's working; and now — as the Music Man says — there's trouble in River City. After scanning many trillions of smashes, the LHC sees not a single superparticle! My quote-of-the-year award goes to American physicists Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropolu:
"The negative results are beginning to produce if not a full-blown crisis in particle physics, then at least a widespread panic."
So here are my predictions for hot physics news in 2015: The LHC will work up to full power. It might find a superparticle. If so, the particle will get an ugly name that starts with s. Then physicists will hunt more superparticles. They will need a bigger atom smasher costing multi-gigabucks. With it they will expand the standard model on a firmer foundation. The main effect of superparticles on you and me will be we'll share the costs. The effect on the world economy will be modest; we won't notice it.
But what if the LHC works up to full power and finds no superparticles? Then: No superheroes, so no rescue. The standard model will be ridiculed: the standard muddle, 40 years of fundamental physics consigned to the comic books. Funds for smashing atoms will be in short supply. Physicists will drive cabs. The main effect of all those trillions of non-events on you and me will be: They will transform our world. How so? Well, the world economy is getting sluggish. It needs new physics. We will find new physics when old physics crumbles. New physics will create a new economy as inconceivable to us as smartphones, social media and Google were 40 years ago. Spending all those gigabucks to show there are no superparticles will seem a steal.
Which way will it go? What do you think? My bet: The old physics is all set to crumble.
Colin Gillespie is a physicist and author whose most recent book is Time One: Discover How the Universe Began. He writes a weekly web log Science Seen.