It was 2012, and physicists had just announced the big news: CERN's Large Hadron Collider had delivered what looked like (and was later confirmed to be) a Higgs particle, the capstone of a decades-long search to complete the so-called Standard Model of particle physics—a discovery that would lead the following year to a Nobel Prize. Naturally, many scientists immediately eyed the next piece of the puzzle that they anticipate the LHC will uncover. “I'm still hanging tough, hoping for supersymmetry,” said John Ellis of King's College London at the time, referring to the theory of matter that many physicists thought would supplant the Standard Model.
Since then, however, the search for “superpartner” particles that would help describe why particles have the masses they do and would solve the mystery of dark matter has led to disappointments. So far, as Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu relate in their cover story, “Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics,” the “results from the first run of the LHC have ruled out almost all the best-studied versions” of the theory. A higher-power run is due in 2015, but there is no guarantee it will yield the answers. Then what?
While we wait for the foundational picture of how the universe works to take better shape, we can watch machines develop the ability to take different forms here on Earth. In “Shape-Shifting Things to Come” Sridhar Kota chronicles efforts to employ elastic, or compliant, design in our man-made contraptions. Instead of using many rigid parts in complex and often inefficient systems, as is done today, such designs can distribute loads across flexible devices made of fewer parts. The materials could enable such applications as bendable aircraft wings and snake robots, and their use would improve efficiency and durability in our engineered creations. They may not solve some of our profound questions about the universe, but they could make things easier here in the meantime.
Citizen Science: Last Chance to Enter
Entries close on May 12 for the Google Science Fair, which includes a chance to win the $50,000 Scientific American Science in Action Award. The international competition is open to students ages 13 to 18. Science in Action honors a project that can make a practical difference by tackling an environmental, health or resources challenge; the prize includes a year of mentoring to continue to advance the winning work. Details can be found at ScientificAmerican.com/education/science-in-action —M.D.