We need to talk about CERN’s future

3 November 2023

Finding a crisp narrative that better reflects our research after the discovery of the Higgs boson is vital to inspire current and future generations, argues Urs Wiedemann.

Formulating a narrative
Thinking ahead A common intellectual denominator is key when formulating a narrative. Credit: iStock/Kateryna Kovarzh

In big science, long-term planning for future colliders is a careful process of consensus building. Particle physics has successfully institutionalised this discourse in the many working groups and R&D projects that contribute, for example, to the European strategy updates and the US Snowmass exercise. But long timescales and political dimensions can render these processes impersonal and uninspiring. Ultimately, a powerful vision that captures the imagination of current and future generations must go beyond consensus building; it should provide a crisp, common intellectual denominator of how we talk about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

A lack of uniqueness

For several decades, the hunt for the Higgs boson has been central to such a captivating narrative. Today, 11 years after its discovery, all other fundamental open questions remain open, and questions about the precise nature of the Higgs mechanism have become newly accessible to experimentation. What the field is facing today is not a lack of long-term challenges and opportunities, but a lack of uniqueness of one scientific hypothesis behind which a broad and intrinsically heterogeneous international research community could be assembled most easily.

We need to learn how to communicate this reality more effectively. Particle physics, even if no longer driven by the hypothesis of a particular particle within guaranteed experimental reach, continues to have a well-defined aim in understanding the fundamental composition of the universe. From discussions, however, I sense that many of my colleagues find it harder to develop long-term motivation in this more versatile situation. As a theorist I know that nature does not care about the words I attach to its equations. And yet, our research community is not immune to the motivational power of snappy formulations.

Urs Wiedemann

The exploration of the Higgs sector provides a two-decade-long perspective for future experimentation at the LHC and its high-luminosity upgrade (HL-LHC). However, any thorough exploration of the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism exceeds the capabilities of the HL-LHC and motivates a new machine. Why is it then challenging to communicate to the greater public that collecting 3 ab–1 of data by the end of the HL-LHC is more than filling-in details on a discovery made in 2012? How can our narrative better reflect the evolving emphasis of our research? Should we talk, for example, about the Higgs’ self-interaction as a “fifth force”? Or would this be misleading cheerleader language, given that the Higgs self-coupling, unlike the other forces in the Standard Model Lagrangian, is not gauged? Whatever the best pitch is, it deserves to be sharpened within our community and more homogeneously disseminated.

Another compelling narrative for a future collider is the growing synergy with other fields. In recent decades, space-based astrophysical observatories have started to reach a complexity and cost comparable to the LHC. In addition, there is a multitude of smaller astrophysical observatories. We should welcome the important complementarities between lab-based experimental and space-based observational approaches. In the case of dark matter, for example, there are strong generic reasons to expect that collider experiments can constrain (and finally, establish) the microscopic nature of dark matter and that the solution lies in experimentally unchartered territory, such as either very massive or very feebly interacting particles.

What makes the physics of the infinitesimally small exciting for the public is also what makes it difficult to communicate

What makes the physics of the infinitesimally small exciting for the public is also what makes it difficult to communicate, starting with subtle differences in the use of everyday language. For a lay audience, for instance, a “search for something” is easy to picture, and not finding the something is a failure. In physics, however, particles can reveal themselves in quantum fluctuations even if the energy needed to produce them can’t be reached. Far from being a failure, not-finding with increased precision becomes an intrinsic mark of progress. When talking to non-scientists, should we try to bring to the forefront such unique and subtle features of our search logic? Could this be a safeguard against the foes of our science who misrepresent the perspectives and consequences of our research by naively equating any unconfirmed hypothesis with failure? Or is this simply too subtle and intellectual to be heard?

Clearly, in our everyday work at CERN, getting the numbers out is the focus. But going beyond this operational attitude and fighting for the most adequate words and pictures that give meaning to what we are doing is crucial to keep the community focused and motivated for the long march ahead.

• Adapted from text originally published in the CERN Staff Association newsletter.

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