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Atom Smashers


By Don Lincoln

Published Jul 1, 2015 8:00 AM

Why Dark Matter Matters


Illustration by Aaron Ross

Recommissioning of the LHC began in April, and the accelerator is now being turned over to researchers to explore new aspects of physics. And what incredible research it is! Around a thousand Ph.D. students will work on data analysis, trying to make a discovery that changes how we think about the universe. Pieter Everaerts, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher, leads a group that is exploring a branch of physics called supersymmetry, a proposed new theory of physics that could supplant the existing Standard Model. Supersymmetry predicts that all known particles have an asyet-undiscovered cousin. One of the cousins could well be a substance called dark matter, which is a form of matter that is invisible to our telescopes and which astronomers claim is five times more prevalent than the ordinary matter of molecules and atoms. Scientists speculate that the LHC might create dark matter and allow them to study that dark matter in the lab.

“Supersymmetry is the most compelling of a whole litany of proposed new theories,” Everaerts says. “It is incredibly exciting to be working at the LHC, where we combine many measurements to either verify the theory or maybe kill it entirely. Either way, we learn something crucial about the makeup of the universe.”

UCLA graduate student Eric Takasugi M.S. ’11 is taking another approach. He is studying the data for well-known phenomena and comparing these data to predictions from the Standard Model. His rationale is simple: In order to search for new physics, existing theory must describe the familiar physics processes that scientists have long known about. If the theory describes well-known physics, it is more likely that any discrepancy is a sign of something entirely new.

Because of the breadth of expertise among the UCLA physics faculty, Takasugi says he can compare his measurements to the predictions of the strong UCLA theory group headed by Professor Zvi Bern. That has been “an incredibly productive collaboration. It will be interesting to see if the data we take in 2015 and beyond continue to agree with predictions, because we can use known physics to provide insights into unknown physics. And, if not, well, that might be even more interesting.”

The next few years will be extremely exciting, with the prospect that this new data might lead to a new discovery, but the UCLA group is looking farther out. The LHC accelerators and detectors will require a constant stream of upgrades. UCLA researchers are already developing the technologies to confront this frantic pace.

“The LHC research program will run for probably the next 15 to 20 years,” Hauser explains. “It has already made one discovery that led to a Nobel Prize. With the enhanced beams and detectors, it will almost certainly make more. To quote Yogi Berra, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, but the data recorded by the LHC will certainly cause us to rewrite the textbooks.”