Forget About Electrons And Protons; The Unstable Muon Could Be The Future Of Particle Physics
“Humanity can always choose to build a bigger ring or invest in producing stronger-field magnets; those are easy ways to go to higher energies in particle physics. But there’s no cure for synchrotron radiation with electrons and positrons; you’d have to use heavier particles instead. There’s no cure for energy being distributed among multiple constituent particles inside a proton; you’d have to use fundamental particles instead.
The muon is the one particle that could solve both of these issues. The only drawback is that they’re unstable, and difficult to keep alive for a long time. However, they’re easy to make: smash a proton beam into a piece of acrylic and you’ll produce pions, which will decay into both muons and anti-muons. Accelerate those muons to high energy and collimate them into beams, and you can put them in a circular collider.”
There are lots of possibilities being discussed for how we could build a next-generation particle collider, capable of pushing past the frontiers where the LHC will be fundamentally limited. We could go to a larger proton collider, we could go back to doing high-precision collisions of electrons and positrons to create large numbers of the known, existing particles, or we could push the frontiers in an entirely new way: by colliding muons with anti-muons.
“But they only live for 2.2 microseconds,” you correctly object. Good thing we understand physics. If we can get the technology there, it’s the best option imaginable.
Does Particle Physics Have A Future On Earth?
“Will it be successful? Regardless of what we find, that answer is unequivocally yes. In experimental physics, success does not equate to finding something, as some might erroneously believe. Instead, success means knowing something, post-experiment, that you did not know before you did the experiment. To push beyond the presently known frontiers, we’d ideally want both a lepton and a proton collider, at the highest energies and collision rates we can achieve.
There is no doubt that new technologies and spinoffs will come from whichever collider or colliders come next, but that’s not why we do it. We are after the deepest secrets of nature, the ones that will remain elusive even after the Large Hadron Collider finishes. We have the technical capabilities, the personnel, and the expertise to build it right at our fingertips. All we need is the political and financial will, as a civilization, to seek the ultimate truths about nature.”
With the discovery of the Higgs boson and nothing else at the LHC, many physicists are legitimately entertaining what’s been called the “nightmare scenario,” where no new particles exist beyond the Standard Model that can be discovered by terrestrial colliders. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion that there aren’t such particles, and there are two generic types of plan for how we might find any new particles that do exist beyond the LHC’s reach. If the experimental particle physics community comes together to develop a single, coherent proposal for their future, we could probe the frontiers of nature as never before.
Does particle physics have a future on Earth? It should, and here’s what I would recommend they choose if they have the political and financial will to do so.