By Nia John, Festival Communications Assistant

On the 6 September at the British Science Festival, Dr Gavin Hesketh brought us up to speed on the latest discoveries from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), capturing the audience as he explained the future of particle physics.

Buried deep beneath the Swiss countryside just outside Geneva lies tonnes of equipment. Miles of wiring, four massive detectors and magnets chilled to temperatures colder than outer space all make up what’s called, the ‘Large Hadron Collider’, but what is it for? Scientists from across the world are working on this great machine, pushing the envelope of particle physics, looking at the smallest building blocks of matter in hopes of discovering more about the universe - what it’s made of, how it behaves, and possibly even where it came from.

To answer these questions, physicists at the LHC smash unimaginably tiny particles together and analyse the fallout from these high energy collisions. Essentially, scientists are smashing the smallest things we know together, allowing them to see what these tiny particles themselves are made of. When the LHC was first switched on, all the chatter was about the possibility of using this technique to discover evidence of a brand-new particle that had only been theorised about, the ‘Higgs boson’. First proposed in the 1960s, the Higgs boson offered an explanation for why other particles had mass. To find this particle, the LHC produced an astonishing amount of data, with 40 million collisions taking place every second. Only data from the 1000 most interesting collisions were saved for later analysis. This sounds like a lot, but only 1 collision in 10 billion produces this Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson was confirmed in 2012, and scientists one the Nobel prize for their discovery, but what has been going on at the LHC since then?

On December 15, 2015, data from two of the LHC experiments ATLAS and CMS were published – both with a small, unexplained bump in the data. Since then, 400 papers have been published trying to explain this ‘bump’, but what have we understood from analysing this data? Nothing.

So, what next for the LHC and particle physics? Well, there’s plenty more to discover. Could the LHC be the key to answering the streams of questions physicists have? Entirely possible – it’s due to run until 2035, and fitting stronger magnets could increase the collision energies even further. Another option is a new, larger, more powerful particle collider, allowing scientists to reach energies they haven’t been able to find until now. Until then, the LHC will continue to smash particles together and see what mysteries they can unravel with the results.

You can read more about the world of particle physics in Dr Hesketh’s book, The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality.

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