We can’t wait for a future collider

21 April 2023

Future colliders are inherently “early-career colliders”, and our perspectives must be incorporated into decision making, says Karri DiPetrillo. 

Karri DiPetrillo
Karri DiPetrillo is assistant professor at the University of Chicago and a member of the ATLAS collaboration. Credit: K Nimkar

Imagine a world without a high-energy collider. Without our most powerful instrument for directly exploring the smallest scales, we would be incapable of addressing many open questions in particle physics. With the US particle-physics community currently debating which machines should succeed the LHC and how we should fit into the global landscape, this possibility is a serious concern. 

The good news is that physicists generally agree on the science case for future colliders. Questions surrounding the Standard Model itself, in particular the microscopic nature of the Higgs boson and the origin of electroweak symmetry breaking, can only be addressed at high-energy colliders. We also know the Standard Model is not the complete picture of the universe. Experimental observations and theoretical concerns strongly suggest the existence of new particles at the multi-TeV scale. 

The latest US Snowmass exercise and the European strategy update both advocate for the fast construction of an e+e Higgs factory followed by a multi-TeV collider. The former will enable us to measure the Higgs boson’s couplings to other particles with an order of magnitude better precision than the High-Luminosity LHC. The latter is crucial to unambiguously surpass exclusions from the LHC, and would be the only experiment where we could discover or exclude minimal dark-matter scenarios all the way up to their thermal targets. Most importantly, precise measurements of the Brout–Englert–Higgs potential at a 10 TeV scale collider are essential to understand what role the Higgs plays in the origin and evolution of the universe. 

We haven’t yet agreed on what to build, where and when. We face an unprecedented choice between scaling up existing collider technologies or pursuing new, compact and power-efficient options. We must also choose between centering the energy frontier at a single lab or restoring global balance to the field by hosting colliders at different sites. Our choices in the next few years could determine the next century of particle physics. 

Snowmass community workshop

The Future Circular Collider programme – beginning with a large circular e+e collider (FCC-ee) with energies ranging from 90 to 365 GeV, followed by a pp collider with energies up to 100 TeV (FCC-hh) – would build on the infrastructure and skills currently present at CERN. A circular e+e machine could support multiple interaction points, produce higher luminosity than a linear machine for energies of interest, and its tunnel could be re-used for a pp collider. While this staged approach has driven success in our field for decades, scaling up to a circumference of 100 km raises serious questions about feasibility, cost and power consumption. As a new assistant professor, I am also deeply concerned about gaps in data-taking and time­-scales. Even if there are no delays, I will likely retire during the FCC-ee run and die before the FCC-hh produces collisions. 

In contrast, there is a growing contingent of physicists who think that a paradigm shift is essential to reach the 10 TeV scale and beyond. The International Muon Collider collaboration has determined that, with targeted R&D to address engineering challenges and make design progress, a few-TeV μ+μ collider could be realised on a 20-year technically limited timeline, and would set the stage for an eventual 10 TeV machine. The latter could enable a mass reach equivalent to a 50–200 TeV hadron collider, in addition to precision electroweak measurements, with a lower price tag and significantly smaller footprint. A muon collider also opens the possibility to host different machines at different sites, easing the transition between projects and fostering a healthier, more global workforce. Assuming the technical challenges can be overcome, a muon collider would therefore be the most attractive way forward.

Assuming the technical challenges can be overcome, a muon collider would be the most attractive way forward

We are not yet ready to decide which path is most optimal, but we are already time-constrained. It is increasingly likely that the next machine will not turn on until after the High Luminosity-LHC. The most senior person today who could reasonably participate is roughly only 10 years into a permanent job. Early-career faculty, who would use this machine, are experienced enough to have well-informed opinions, but are not senior enough to be appointed to decision-making panels. While we value the wisdom of our senior colleagues, future colliders are inherently “early-career colliders”, and our perspectives must be incorporated. 

The US must urgently invest in future collider R&D. If other areas of physics progress faster than the energy frontier, our colleagues will disengage, move elsewhere and might not come back. If the size of the field and expertise atrophy before the next machine, we risk imperilling future colliders altogether. We agree on the physics case. We want the opportunity to access higher energies in our lifetimes. Let’s work together to choose the right path forward.

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