The first time I went to a lecture on supersymmetry the auditorium was so packed that many people could not get in. I was pleased I had anticipated the high demand and arrived very early. In his talk entitled “Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?” The speaker explained to us that supersymmetry was the greatest hope for theoretical physics because it offered the possibility to unify the gauge theories of particle physics with a quantum theory of gravity in a way that might avoid the infinities of quantum field theory.
The speaker was of course Stephen Hawking and the occasion was his inauguration as Lucasian Professor in Cambridge. The version of supersymmetry that had him so excited was N=8 Supergravity in 4 dimensions. Cautiously he predicted that a complete theory of particle physics could be worked out in 20 years time using this new superunified theory.
30 years have passed and we know that things did not work out quite as Hawking has hoped. He thought that N=8 supergravity might be a unique candidate for a fully unified theory of physics, although the particles we now know as fundamental would have to be composite. He did not consider higher dimensional theories because he thought that details such as the number of spacetime dimensions could be explained by anthropomorphic arguments.
A few years later, supergravity was replaced by superstring theories and higher dimensions became mandatory. The underlying theory still possesses a similar uniqueness but now anthropomorphic arguments are needed to select the real world vacuum from a vast landscape of possibilities that superstring theory offers. Hawking has now retired as Lucasian professor to be replaced by one of superstrings’ pioneers, Michael Green. Supersymmetry and superstrings face a skeptical backlash from a large section of the younger generation who are disillusioned by its failure to provide clear predictions for particle physics or cosmology after so much time.
Now the table may be turning full circle and this time support for supersymmetry comes not just from theory, but from experiment too. The version of supersymmetry that has come to the fore is the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model – an extension of the well established Standard Model of particle physics that includes an additional broken supersymmetry. This leads to one superpartner for every familiar particle that we know already, plus an alternative Higgs sector with fives Higgs particles, two of them charged.
The MSSM first appeared just a year after Hawking’s lecture. Since its early days it has been understood that it improves the naturalness of low energy particle physics due to anomaly cancellations that help keep the Higgs sector light. With the addition of supersymmetry the three running coupling constants converge at one energy point, suggesting a dessert of new physics up to a more complete unification at the GUT scale. The model also provides a natural R-parity symmetry that would make its lightest particle stable. This offers a unique candidate for dark matter whose stability would otherwise be very hard to explain.
For the last decade or perhaps more, theorists have been anticipating the imminent discovery of supersymmetry in the world’s highest energy particle accelerators. Fermilab was thought to have a chance of discovery with the Tevatron and there were even some false starts that faded away as the statistics grew. Now their hopes turn to the Large Hadron Collider but the Tevatron is not finished yet. In recent months we have seen some tantalising results reported by Fermilab that support the MSSM. Nothing is conclusive yet, but the combined evidence all seems to point in the right direction.
For those of us who grow up with the idea that supersymmetry is the final move in a game of unification that leads inevitably to a complete theory, these reports are too hard to dismiss. After the ICHEP conference we drool over the results that should have been shown, but weren’t. Plots which show inconclusive signals of less than 3-sigmas statistical significance are quick and easy to approve for publication. They don’t lead to big headlines. Anything above three sigmas would count as an observation and that puts it in a different league of results. With some history of failed observations from the past, Fermilab are likely to put off publication until the next round of data is seen to add rather than subtract from the result. For us the outsiders, the mere absence of certain plots starts to look like a sign to get excited about.
For the supersymmetry skeptics the conclusions to be drawn are different. Any signal below 3 sigma is to be dismissed as noise. They can even dismiss the exclusion of the Higgs mass range that now strongly supports a light Higgs sector as predicted by supersymmetry. It is indirect and still inconclusive.
If supersymmetry is indeed just below the surface, what will happen next? The Tevatron will continue to analyse the data they have while collecting some more until about 2013. The signal will grow until it is clear that something new has been seen. The LHC will not have the luminosity to see the low mass Higgs sector before the Tevatron, but supersymmetry will offer other new particles of higher mass. The LHC might pick out some of those very quickly and start to study their properties. Very soon the parameter space of supersymmetric models will be narrowed down. There will be a huge spurt of activity amongst theorists as they figure out how particle physics works at this scale. If there really is a desert of new physics beyond supersymmetry it may be possible to work out a convincing scenario for physics right up to the GUT scale. Possibly the next generation of accelerators will be needed to pin down most of the coupling constants. If they are clever enough, there may be enough information to figure out the mechanism for breaking supersymmetry at the GUT scale. That could reveal a perfectly supersymmetric world at higher energies with far fewer free parameters.
It will not stop there. If supersymmetry is part of gauge field unfication then its unbroken gauge form will include supergravity. The experimenters will have had their day again as theory pushes into higher energies with renewed confidence. How far it will run is hard to say but the connection between supersymmetry and quantum gravity is hard to pull apart. Knowing the details of supersymmetry at the electroweak scale could be enough to lead us to the end of theoretical particle physics in the sense that Hawking predicted 30 years ago. Perhaps even superstrings will suddenly look right again. Until we have the next results from experiment we cannot be sure, but that is what makes the current situation so exciting. In just a few years - perhaps even just months - a renaissance of particle physics merging experiment and theory might be well underway. It might pan out in a less predictable way than I have suggested here, but it is sure to be revealing, if it happens at all.