University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy


The waiting game

Mickhail Shifman
Wendy Tschampl

Professor Mikhail Shifman, a theoretical high energy physicist, began his career on the eve of a big developments in high energy physics, the discovery of the J/ψ particle (charmonium) in 1974. “It was such an exciting time, he recalls. People would not sleep. Every day, new papers were coming out, new advances being made.” Shifman said that it was a great time to be a young theorist. He is betting that he will be able to book-end his career with another great era in particle theory.

Shifman has spent the bulk of his 30 year career studying Supersymmetry, the theory predicting that every particle has an as yet unobserved super-partner. “It is an elegant theory which solves a lot of problems, but it has not yet been observed in nature.” Shifman and his colleagues in the field of supersymmetry are banking their hopes on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) being currently built at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. The superpartners are believed to have masses so large that they have so far been out of the range of accelerator technology. The LHC is one of the largest most expensive scientific undertakings ever, and if estimates of the mass of the superpartners are correct, LHC should be able to see them. Useful scientific data from LHC is expected within the next year.

Shifman says that the theory of supersymmetry has held up quite well for thirty years, without scientific evidence to back it up. “It is as deep as Einstein’s theories,” he says. Any theory, he warns will stagnate without new data to push it along, and refine it. High energy particle theory has become an immensely competitive field, in particular, due to this lack of data. “Every new idea, gets jumped on and attracts the attention of many students. Of course, those who have greater research experience have the best advantage. It is not an easy time to be a young person in the field.” Shifman hopes LHC will change that. “With new data, new directions will open everywhere and young people will be able to have their pick. It will level the playing field.”

In the meantime, as the eyes of his community are nervously fixed toward Geneva, Shifman becomes a bit philosophical about the risks he and his colleagues have taken in supporting a theory, that as yet is only an elegant mathematical construct. “In hindsight people have built big experiments that failed at their goal, but yielded unexpected, even more interesting results than their original planners thought they would.” Shifman asserts that the field of high energy theory, and high energy experiment, has much riding on LHC due to the sheer man-power and expense of the project, will continue no matter what the outcome. “It will not be easy, if it fails. There will be less money, fewer postdocs.” Shifman, who recently was awarded the Blaise Pascal chair in physics will be spending part of next year in France. “It was in the back of my mind, when I accepted the chair, that I might be close to CERN if there is a big discovery. With some luck, I will be.”