Dark rumblings

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The Large Hadron Collider is stirring up trouble, and that's good news for science.

In the 1860s, physics looked beautiful. The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell had just published a series of papers that unified electricity, magnetism and light into a theory that could be expressed in a few equations. In doing so, he settled a long-running debate over whether light was a continuous wave of energy or a spray of tiny particles. It was, to anyone who understood Maxwell's work, quite obviously a wave. That raised a question, although it seemed to be more of a niggling detail to Maxwell's devotees: like water waves or sound, the new, electromagnetic light waves should need a medium through which to travel. If Maxwell was right, what did it look like?

So began the search for the notorious ether. In one spectacular experiment in 1887, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley designed and built a prototype interferometer to measure the speed of light at different points in Earth's orbit and showed that the speed was constant — impossible if light and Earth were flowing through an unseen liquid. Contrary to all their expectations, the ether wasn't there.

There are some parallels between physics then and physics now. Like the 1860s, the 1960s saw an incredible unification of modern physical theories. This time, the standard model of particle physics took Maxwell's electromagnetic force and wove it with the strong and weak nuclear forces. According to the theory, at sufficiently high energies the weak and electromagnetic forces merge into a single, electroweak force.

Like Maxwell's theory, the standard model is powerful, but there are some details that it can't quite explain. One is dark matter, a so-far undetected entity that makes up most of the matter in the cosmos. Another is dark energy, a force that seems to be pushing the Universe apart. There are some other unexplained odds and ends too, but nothing formidable enough to push the standard model from its perch.

To deal with some of the problems, the best theorists of the day have proposed an extension of the model, known as supersymmetry. This modification unifies the electroweak force with the strong nuclear force, and suggests some elementary particles that might explain dark matter.

Now, an experiment has come along to challenge the standard model and its offspring. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27-kilometre proton–proton collider on the French–Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland, is delivering a torrent of data that can be used to probe the boundaries of the standard model. But the collider has yet to find evidence of the particles suggested by supersymmetry theory (see page 13). If it finds nothing in the next year, the theory will look like it is in serious trouble. If it finds nothing in two years, then many theorists will probably abandon it, just as theorists eventually had to abandon extensions of Maxwell's work that explained away the missing ether.

The parallels with history shouldn't be taken too seriously. The LHC is a much more elaborate experiment than the one done by Michelson and Morley. It uses proton collisions to probe unknown energies for all sorts of things, not just the supersymmetrical particles some hope it will find. Nor is the LHC likely to deliver a clear refutation of supersymmetry — the theory, the data and the analysis are all much more complicated than they were 125 years ago.

But comparison can remind us of something that is easily overlooked: the negative results now coming out of the LHC should be just as stimulating as any positive findings. Michelson and Morley's experiment, and others like it, eventually led Albert Einstein to axiomatically accept that light travelled at a constant speed and could be both a wave and a particle. Those revelations never really disproved Maxwell's theories, but they did help to develop special relativity and quantum mechanics — the two greatest theories of the twentieth century. In the same way, the LHC's results — whatever they may be — could force scientists to think differently. If one beautiful theory can't explain the data, then there must be another out there somewhere that can.


  1. Report this comment #18508

    V K WONG said:

    The two greatest theories of the 20th century? Try GENERAL Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

  2. Report this comment #18515

    Wayne Williamson said:

    Interesting to see that even back then that they were looking for an ether....the ether is gravity....also, dark matter is not needed....

  3. Report this comment #18566

    Vic Kley said:

    Collecting new information about our local reality at LHC may well provide the basis for formulating and testing new theories basic to our world view.

    What needs to happen is the collection of data both here on Earth and in the those far reaches of the Universe in which we believe we detect the effects on real matter of gravity and gravitational acceleration which some call Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

    These effects may well be a quality related to the complex folding of space time in these regions or it may be the result of yet to be detected particles posited by the hunt for WIMPS in deep caverns across the world. These particles if they exist would be the "stuff" of Dark Matter.

    Already we are not finding the particles predicted at LHC and elsewhere. It is not too early to think how space time rather then simplistic names for missing terms in well behaved theories might be described to encompass both the local gravity in our small region of the Milky Way and the behavior of more distant stars systems and galaxies.

    Time for theorists to light a way out of darkness.

  4. Report this comment #18625

    john gribbin said:

    The "revelations" certainly did not refute Maxwell's theory — the whole basis of the special theory was that Einstein accepted Maxwell's equations and therefore had to modify Newtonian mechanics. And please — NEVER special relativity! It is the theory that is special (meaning restricted), not the relativity.

  5. Report this comment #18802

    Yoseph Stein said:

    Einstein didn't use the results of Michelson and Morley's experiment in his work.

  6. Report this comment #19113

    Vladimir Leonov said:

    I'm surprised by this situation. The theory of Superunification has been published. The theory of Superunification is unique in its kind, and there is no other theory of Superunification.
    Need to enter keywords Theory of Superunification. The Internet will show who is who.
    Need to give references to published work, rather than ignore them. This is the correct behavior in science. That many do not like. But fact is fact.
    Leonov V. S. Quantum Energetics. Volume 1. Theory of Superunification. Cambridge International Science Publishing, 2010, 745 pages

  7. Report this comment #25205

    Edgar R. McCarvill said:

    Maxwell was right: There is a medium. It travels as photons and positive energy protons, inside of segments of electron groupings, inside of collimated streams (CS). Light is a particle and an enclosed wave. It is important to look at the 100 million mile wide magnetic bubbles found by Voyagers 1 & 2. NASA?s release web page, 11-174 of June 09 2011 is: (http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/jun/HQ_11-174_Voyager_Update.html).
    The images were sections of some of the millions of widened out solar CS, of which each is forged from one of the many electromagnetic (EM) field lines produced by interactions of proton particles magnetically trapped inside of the coronal magnetic segments. Intervening gaps between the segments, where the white sheets of protons jet out, would also have many created EM field lines.
    Describing widening CSs and why they fill the heliosphere is a simple task, but a very lengthy one. These CS disprove gravity?s lensing and place it on negative magnetics of CS repelling from the negative energy of a met body, to reform once past the body.
    Would that I understood the submission to Nature rules, then this and much more about the Sun would have been submitted years ago.
    Ed McCarvill, Retired pipefitter,
    BC Canada

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