Solve one puzzle, raise a million more questions

Allow yourself a cheer: we might have found the God particle. At the end of July, physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern in Geneva gathered to dissect the results they have gathered so far. The most exciting news was that a blip in one of the detectors looked like the signature of the elusive Higgs boson particle, which is more popularly (and much less accurately) known as "the God particle".

The Higgs boson is thought to be the ultimate source of mass and explains why we are subject to gravity. It is the last piece of the puzzle in the standard model of particle physics, the most complete theory of how everything comes together to make matter.

So, when researchers from another of the detectors announced that they had seen something similar, there was still more cause for excitement - until the physicists poured rather a lot of cold water over the celebrations, that is.

First, they said, it could be a statistical blip - a chance conjunction of insignificant particles that creates the illusion of the presence of a Higgs boson. To check, the physicists are now combining the data taken by both detectors in a way that will confirm or destroy the blip. This analysis should be complete by the end of August.

Second, they have to make sure that they didn't make a mistake when they decided, years ago, what they were looking for. After a collision, the Higgs boson particle exists for only a tiny fraction of a second before it turns into an array of other particles. These are the particles that leave a trace in the detectors, and the exact recipe for that array depends on the characteristics of the Higgs boson - characteristics that we don't yet fully understand.

The final twist in the tale is that finding the Higgs boson could justifiably be viewed as a disaster. Many physicists don't want to complete the standard model, because they know it falls short. It doesn't explain, for example, why the various forces, such as gravity and electromagnetism, have the strengths they do.

Bright squark

If you want answers to such questions, you have to look to another theory, known as "supersymmetry". This says that every fundamental particle has an as-yet-undetected partner. The electron has the selectron, the quark has the squark, and so on.

The theory behind this bigger zoo of particles and sparticles gives us a much more satisfying explanation of how everything in the universe works.
Supersymmetry doesn't mesh with the standard model; only one of them can be right. The trouble is, if supersymmetry is correct, we should have seen some of its particles by now.

The LHC has been smashing particles together at ever-increasing energies and has already covered the lowest energy range where we might have expected to see the signature particles of supersymmetry.

The situation is not yet catastrophic, because there are myriad versions of supersymmetry and not all of them have been ruled out. It does make things unsatisfyingly complex, though. If we've found the Higgs boson, that's great - but it

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold