It’s very rare that I disagree with Matt Strassler. That said, I can’t help but think that, when he criticizes the press for focusing their LHC stories on dark matter, he’s missing an important element.
From his perspective, when the media says that the goal of the new run of the LHC is to detect dark matter, they’re just being lazy. People have heard of dark matter. They might have read that it makes up 23% of the universe, more than regular matter at 4%. So when an LHC physicist wants to explain what they’re working on to a journalist, the easiest way is to talk about dark matter. And when the journalist wants to explain the LHC to the public, they do the same thing.
This explanation makes sense, but it’s a little glib. What Matt Strassler is missing is that, from the public’s perspective, dark matter really is a central part of the LHC’s justification.
Now, I’m not saying that the LHC’s main goal is to detect dark matter! Directly detecting dark matter is pretty low on the LHC’s list of priorities. Even if it detects a new particle with the right properties to be dark matter, it still wouldn’t be able to confirm that it really is dark matter without help from another experiment that actually observes some consequence of the new particle among the stars. I agree with Matt when he writes that the LHC’s priorities for the next run are
studying the newly discovered Higgs particle in great detail, checking its properties very carefully against the predictions of the “Standard Model” (the equations that describe the known apparently-elementary particles and forces) to see whether our current understanding of the Higgs field is complete and correct, and
trying to find particles or other phenomena that might resolve the naturalness puzzle of the Standard Model, a puzzle which makes many particle physicists suspicious that we are missing an important part of the story, and
seeking either dark matter particles or particles that may be shown someday to be “associated” with dark matter.
Here’s the thing, though:
From the public’s perspective, why do we need to study the properties of the Higgs? Because we think it might be different than the Standard Model predicts.
Why do we think it might be different than the Standard Model predicts? More generally, why do we expect the world to be different from the Standard Model at all? Well there are a few reasons, but they generally boil down to two things: the naturalness puzzle, and the fact that the Standard Model doesn’t have anything that could account for dark matter.
Naturalness is a powerful motivation, but it’s hard to sell to the general public. Does the universe appear fine-tuned? Then maybe it just is fine-tuned! Maybe someone fine-tuned it!
These arguments miss the real problem with fine-tuning, but they’re hard to correct in a short article. Getting the public worried about naturalness is tough, tough enough that I don’t think we can demand it of the average journalist, or accuse them of being lazy if they fail to do it.
That leaves dark matter. And for all that naturalness is philosophically murky, dark matter is remarkably clear. We don’t know what 96% of the universe is made of! That’s huge, and not just in a “gee-whiz-cool” way. It shows, directly and intuitively, that physics still has something it needs to solve, that we still have particles to find. Unless you are a fan of (increasingly dubious) modifications to gravity like MOND, dark matter is the strongest possible justification for machines like the LHC.
The LHC won’t confirm dark matter on its own. It might not directly detect it, that’s still quite up-in-the-air. And even if it finds deviations from the Standard Model, it’s not likely they’ll be directly caused by dark matter, at least not in a simple way.
But the reason that the press is describing the LHC’s mission in terms of dark matter isn’t just laziness. It’s because, from the public’s perspective, dark matter is the only vaguely plausible reason to spend billions of dollars searching for new particles, especially when we’ve already found the Higgs. We’re lucky it’s such a good reason.