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Excitement is in the air at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the powerful accelerator at CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics) near Geneva. Last year, researchers there recorded faint but extremely promising signs of what could be a new particle that does not fit within the current theoretical model. The LHC is now about to resume operation after being shut down since December for annual maintenance. If its next run confirms the existence of the new particle, that could open the long-sought passage to ‘the new physics’ – and, hopefully, answer some big, longstanding questions.

Experimental physicists and theorists have always worked together trying to understand nature’s underlying laws. Out of this collaboration emerged the ‘Standard Model’, which describes the fundamental particles and the ways that they interact to form all matter we see around us. At some times, experimental discoveries prompted fresh insights or confirmed what theorists already suspected. At others, theoretical predictions sent the experimentalists on a specific search. This was the case back in 1964 when physicists Robert Brout, François Englert and Peter Higgs predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, the particle that was discovered in 2012.

The Higgs boson filled in the last missing piece of the Standard Model, but this model is itself clearly incomplete. None of its particles has the properties of dark matter, a mysterious entity that is five times as prevalent as all the ordinary matter (everything made of atoms, which in turn are built from quarks and electrons) visible in the stars and galaxies. The Standard Model also does not explain the wide range of masses of the fundamental particles, nor why antimatter seems to have nearly completely disappeared, leaving the Universe filled almost exclusively with matter.

That is why, after spending nearly 60 years building the Standard Model, particle physicists are now terribly excited at the prospect of finally breaking it. The flaws of the model were well known, but no one knows what the right model might be. Theorists have been stuck for decades, exploring a vast array of ideas but lacking the data to tell them if they were on the right path. Only an experimental breakthrough can help them move forward, and the LHC might have already made it.

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