Higgs? Done. So what's the next Big Bang?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The God particle may have been found, but so much of the universe remains unknown. Jonathan Brown sets out the really big questions for our brightest minds to answer

This week's announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson – the so-called God particle – was hailed as one of the great breakthroughs of the 21st century, explaining some of the fundamental physics of the universe. Yet in many ways the achievement has only highlighted how much we still do not know. The coming years will see humankind embark on new missions that will seek to advance our understanding: both into the limitless depths of space and the subatomic world within. Here are four questions that still vex science.

1. What is dark matter?

Space is not empty and it is also growing. Meanwhile, modern science suggests that "normal" matter – that is, everything on Earth and all the stars and planets ever observed – constitute just 5 per cent of that space. The rest is made up of dark energy (accounting for 70 per cent) and dark matter – of which very little is known. Invisible because it does not emit or absorb light, we suspect dark matter is there because scientists have detected its gravitational pull. But although it was first hypothesised in the 1930s, describing its makeup has become the subject of intense scientific debate. The leading theory being studied at the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) detector at the Soudan Mine in Minnesota is that it comprises massive sub-atomic particles formed during the Big Bang which have unique properties and are capable of passing through galaxies without causing any observable effects. The other mainstream theory is that it is in fact very large clumps of ordinary matter, ranging in size from black holes to neutron stars.

The debate moved forward this week when researchers in Germany said they had discovered filaments of what they believe to be dark matter connecting two galaxy clusters 2.7bn light years away.

2. What are gravitational waves?

They are the universe's most elusive waveforms, created by unfathomably huge events far out in the universe – the collision of neutron stars or the convergence of black holes.

Yet despite the cataclysms which spawned them, it has long been held that these "ripples on the face of time" happened so far away that they would be too weak ever to be recorded when they reached Earth. But scientists at the Anglo-German Geo600 project near Hannover, among others, believe they could be on the brink of measuring their first gravitational waves. If or when they do, it is believed it will usher in a new era of astronomy.

At present radio astronomy relies on other forms of electromagnetic radiation to peer into the universe. While these forms of energy are far stronger than gravitational waves, they are also much more easily corrupted by other matter. In contrast, gravitational waves pass through the universe as if it is transparent, allowing humans to glimpse back into the origins of the Big Bang – and possibly explaining how the cosmos was born. They could allow scientists to describe the creation of black holes and delve deep into phenomena such as supernovae. The instruments used in the hunt are highly sensitive, and the search has so far been fruitless, but scientists are convinced the waves are out there – as predicted by Einstein in 1916 and strongly suggested by later observations. It is just a matter of finding them.

3. Can we travel faster than light?

It is an immutable fact that nothing can travel faster than light – or least it was an immutable fact for most of the 20th century. Yet the possibility of travelling in excess of 186,282 miles per second has long intrigued scientists. To be able to do so would, of course, provide the key to true inter-galactic travel. It might also open the door to time travel, potentially severing the link between cause and effect for the first time. Hence the excitement which surrounded the claim in 2011 that neutrino particles had travelled 450 miles through the earth, from the Cern laboratory in Geneva to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, in three milliseconds, some 60 nanoseconds faster than light.

Overturning Einstein's 1905 Special Theory of Relativity sent shockwaves through the scientific community, resulting in a retest and the conclusion that the neutrinos had in fact equalled, not surpassed, light. The quest continues.

4. Is there a theory of everything?

Finding a theory that unifies all particles and forces in the universe would certainly be a tidy way of ordering our understanding. Scientists spent much of the 20th century bringing different theories together – most notably for particle physics in the Standard Model. For three decades the model has unified three of the four fundamental forces: the electromagnetic force; the strong force binding quarks together in atomic nuclei; and the weak force controlling radioactive decay.

Yet the standard model fails to incorporate gravity, something we have been familiar with since Newton's apple. Perhaps the best-publicised attempt to incorporate everything came from an unlikely source – the freelance physicist and surfer/snowboarder Garrett Lisi, who unveiled his ideas in 2007. Lisi bases his "simple" theory on a bafflingly complex shape known as E8, plotting all known particles plus 20 notional ones on its 248 points. Although discovered in 1887, the eight-dimensional figure was only recently understood, requiring calculations that if written on paper would cover Manhattan. Lisi claims it could be the answer to everything.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project