CERN'S Globe of Science and Innovation at night (Photo: CERN)

CERN'S Globe of Science and Innovation at night (Photo: CERN)

The work that’s being done at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) Laboratory in Europe has generated news headlines for years.  Recently though, since the Large Hadron Collider (the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator) went online, we’ve been hearing even more about the ambitious activities being  undertaken by this scientific organization, their affiliates and partners.

Within the last month, one CERN experiment in particular, OPERA, stunned the scientific community with its announcement that they discovered sub-atomic particles called neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, which should be impossible since Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity says nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

Days later CERN’s director general, Rolf-Dieter Heuer speaking at a press conference with the heads of two other world renowned physics laboratories declared that “I think by this time next year I will be able to bring you either the Higgs boson or the message that it doesn’t exist.”  The Higgs boson is a theoretical

CERN Control Centre (Photo: CERN)

CERN Control Centre (Photo: CERN)

sub-atomic particle that physicists say should help explain the origins of mass and why matter has mass and is considered to be a key component of “The Standard Model of particle physics.”  Dr. Heuer’s Large Hadron Collider has been a key tool in the search for this elusive and important piece of the physics puzzle.

With all of this talk about CERN, the LHC, and the recent challenge to Einstein’s theory of relativity – we wanted to get a physicist’s unique perspective of it all, so we got in touch with Dr. Pierre Savard from the University of Toronto, a physicist who not only teaches physics, but is actually doing research work with CERN and its Large Hadron Collider.

On the OPERA experiment: Neutrinos found traveling faster than the speed of light

View of the OPERA detector (on the CNGS facility) with its two identical Super Modules, each one containing one target section and one spectrometer (Photo: CERN)

View of the OPERA detector (on the CNGS facility) (Photo: CERN)

“People, in general, are skeptical for a variety of reasons”, says Savard.   He compared it to the arrival of Einstein’s theories about a hundred years ago.  While Einstein’s theories kind of supplanted Newton’s Laws of Motion, they didn’t invalidate them, unlike OPERA’s findings, which if proven true, would invalidate Einstein’s theory that nothing travels faster than light.

The speed of neutrinos has been measured in the past.  Dr. Savard points to a supernova explosion in 1987 when scientists found that the neutrinos did get here a little bit before light, but that didn’t mean that they were going faster than light, it turns out that the neutrinos were emitted before light was emitted and the difference between the arrival of the neutrino signal and the light signal was within a few hours of each other.  Now, if you applied the results of OPERA to those neutrinos from the supernova, Dr. Savard says that “they would have to come in years before.”   Dr. Savard also notes that some objections to OPERA’s findings were raised based on existing theories, “if a particle goes faster than light then we expect that that particle will emit some radiation and therefore lose energy.”

Before the findings of the OPERA experiment are verified or invalidated, the energies that were produced by CERN will need to be reproduced, measurements of those energies will then need to be taken, and then scientists must check and verify all related data and systematics of the experiment before it can be said whether or not this controversial finding is real or not.

On the search for the Higgs boson

One of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors built on the proton-proton Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN (Photo: CERN)

One of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors built on the proton-proton Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN (Photo: CERN)

Dr. Savard is involved in CERN’s search for the Higgs boson and says that they are “pretty close” to either finding it or showing that it doesn’t even exist.  He says that there are many experiments and many people actively working on finding what some consider the Holy Grail of particle physics and that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has delivered a lot of data on this project.  The Standard Model of particle physics makes very precise predictions as to how it should be produced, how it should behave and how scientists should look for it.  Because of these precise predictions, Dr. Savard says, “we should be able to find it, probably next year or two, or exclude it.”

If the Higgs-boson is found, Dr. Savard predicts that it will not only be a significant scientific breakthrough in physics, but also in terms of cosmology, in terms of the one billionth of a second when the Higgs boson turned on very early in creation of the universe.  Dr. Savard cautions that if they do indeed find something, scientists will really need to check that it is indeed the particle that’s predicted by the standard model and not some other variance, or a particle that may be a little different.  Most likely this process would take a few years after its discovery to confirm its validity.

On the other hand if scientists find that the Higgs boson is just a mirage and that it doesn’t exist, Dr. Savard says that this would be a result that a lot of people would like and that it would be quite exciting because after over some forty years of searching for Higgs boson it would give scientists opportunities to search for something new and pursue a brand new explanation for their theories.  According to the (standard model) theory, says Dr. Savard, “If the Higgs boson is not there, there has to be something in the range that is probed by the Large Hadron Collider that sort of compensates for this particle.”

Dr. Pierre Savard joins us this weekend on the radio edition of Science World, so if you’d like to hear more of his thoughts and insights either tune into the show or check out the interview below.

>>>> Listen to the interview here

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include: