Category Archives: Particle Physics

Auroras — Quantum Physics in the Sky — Tonight?

Maybe. If we collectively, and you personally, are lucky, then maybe you might see auroras — quantum physics in the sky — tonight.

Before I tell you about the science, I’m going to tell you where to get accurate information, and where not to get it; and then I’m going to give you a rough idea of what auroras are. It will be rough because it’s complicated and it would take more time than I have today, and it also will be rough because auroras are still only partly understood.

Bad Information

First though — as usual, do NOT get your information from the mainstream media, or even the media that ought to be scientifically literate but isn’t. I’ve seen a ton of misinformation already about timing, location, and where to look. For instance, here’s a map from AccuWeather, telling you who is likely to be able to see the auroras.

Don't believe this map by AccuWeather.  Oh, sure, they know something about clouds.  But auroras, not much.

Don’t believe this map by AccuWeather. Oh, sure, they know something about clouds. But auroras, not much.

See that line below which it says “not visible”? This implies that there’s a nice sharp geographical line between those who can’t possibly see it and those who will definitely see it if the sky is clear. Nothing could be further than the truth. No one knows where that line will lie tonight, and besides, it won’t be a nice smooth curve. There could be auroras visible in New Mexico, and none in Maine… not because it’s cloudy, but because the start time of the aurora can’t be predicted, and because its strength and location will change over time. If you’re north of that line, you may see nothing, and if you’re south of it you still might see something.  (Accuweather also says that you’ll see it first in the northeast and then in the midwest.  Not necessarily.  It may become visible across the U.S. all at the same time.  Or it may be seen out west but not in the east, or vice versa.)

Auroras aren’t like solar or lunar eclipses, absolutely predictable as to when they’ll happen and who can see them. They aren’t even like comets, which behave unpredictably but at least have predictable orbits. (Remember Comet ISON? It arrived exactly when expected, but evaporated and disintegrated under the Sun’s intense stare.) Auroras are more like weather — and predictions of auroras are more like predictions of rain, only in some ways worse. An aurora is a dynamic, ever-changing phenomenon, and to predict where and when it can be seen is not much more than educated guesswork. No prediction of an aurora sighting is EVER a guarantee. Nor is the absence of an aurora prediction a guarantee one can’t be seen; occasionally they appear unexpectedly.  That said, the best chance of seeing one further away from the poles than usual is a couple of days after a major solar flare — and we had one a couple of days ago.

Good Information and How to Use it

If you want accurate information about auroras, you want to get it from the Space Weather Prediction Center, click here for their main webpage. Look at the colorful graph on the lower left of that webpage, the “Satellite Environment Plot”. Here’s an example of that plot taken from earlier today:

The "Satellite Environment Plot" from earlier today; focus your attention on the two lower charts, the one with the red and blue wiggly lines (GOES Hp) and on the one with the bars (Kp Index).  How to use them is explained in the text.

The “Satellite Environment Plot” from earlier today; focus your attention on the two lower charts, the one with the red and blue wiggly lines (GOES Hp) and on the one with the bars (Kp Index). How to use them is explained in the text.

There’s a LOT of data on that plot, but for lack of time let me cut to the chase. The most important information is on the bottom two charts. Continue reading

BICEP2’s Cosmic Polarization: Published, Reduced in Strength

I’m busy dealing with the challenges of being in a quantum superposition, but you’ve probably heard: BICEP2’s paper is now published, with some of its implicit and explicit claims watered down after external and internal review. The bottom line is as I discussed a few weeks ago when I described the criticism of the interpretation of their work (see also here).

  • There is relatively little doubt (but it still requires confirmation by another experiment!) that BICEP2 has observed interesting polarization of the cosmic microwave background (specifically: B-mode polarization that is not from gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization; see here for more about what BICEP2 measured)
  • But no one, including BICEP2, can say for sure whether it is due to ancient gravitational waves from cosmic inflation, or to polarized dust in the galaxy, or to a mix of the two; and the BICEP2 folks are explicitly less certain about this, in the current version of their paper, than in their original implicit and explicit statements.

And we won’t know whether it’s all just dust until there’s more data, which should start to show up in coming months, from BICEP2 itself, from Planck, and from other sources. However, be warned: the measurements of the very faint dust that might be present in BICEP2’s region of the sky are extremely difficult, and the new data might not be immediately convincing. To come to a consensus might take a few years rather than a few months.  Be patient; the process of science, being self-correcting, will eventually get it straight, but not if you rush it.

Sorry I haven’t time to say more right now.

Modern Physics: Increasingly Vacuous

One of the concepts that’s playing a big role in contemporary discussions of the laws of nature is the notion of “vacua”, the plural of the word “vacuum”. I’ve just completed an article about what vacua are, and what it means for a universe to have multiple vacua, or for a theory that purports to describe a universe to predict that it has multiple vacua. In case you don’t want to plunge right in to that article, here’s a brief summary of why this is interesting and important.

Outside of physics, most people think of a vacuum as being the absence of air. For physicists thinking about the laws of nature, “vacuum” means space that has been emptied of everything — at least, emptied of everything that can actually be removed. That certainly means removing all particles from it. But even though vacuum implies emptiness, it turns out that empty space isn’t really that empty. There are always fields in that space, fields like the electric and magnetic fields, the electron field, the quark field, the Higgs field. And those fields are always up to something.

First, all of the fields are subject to “quantum fluctuations” — a sort of unstoppable jitter that nothing in our quantum world can avoid.  [Sometimes these fluctuations are referred to as ``virtual particles''; but despite the name, those aren't particles.  Real particles are well-behaved, long-lived ripples in those fields; fluctuations are much more random.] These fluctuations are always present, in any form of empty space.

Second, and more important for our current discussion, some of the fields may have average values that aren’t zero. [In our own familiar form of empty space, the Higgs field has a non-zero average value, one that causes many of the known elementary particles to acquire a mass (i.e. a rest mass).] And it’s because of this that the notion of vacuum can have a plural: forms of empty space can differ, even for a single universe, if the fields of that universe can take different possible average values in empty space. If a given universe can have more than one form of empty space, we say that “it has more than one vacuum”.

There are reasons to think our own universe might have more than one form of vacuum — more than just the one we’re familiar with. It is possible that the Standard Model (the equations used to describe all of the known elementary particles, and all the known forces except gravity) is a good description of our world, even up to much higher energies than our current particle physics experiments can probe. Physicists can predict, using those equations, how many forms of empty space our world would have. And their calculations show that our world would have (at least) two vacua: the one we know, along with a second, exotic one, with a much larger average value for the Higgs field. (Remember, this prediction is based on the assumption that the Standard Model’s equations apply in the first place.)  An electron in empty space would have a much larger mass than the electrons we know and love (and need!)

The future of the universe, and our understanding of how the universe came to be, might crucially depend on this second, exotic vacuum. Today’s article sets the stage for future articles, which will provide an explanation of why the vacua of the universe play such a central role in our understanding of nature at its most elemental.

In Memoriam: Gerry Guralnik

For those who haven’t heard: Professor Gerry Guralnik died. Here’s the New York Times obituary, which contains a few physics imperfections (though the most serious mistake in an earlier version was corrected, thankfully), but hopefully avoids any errors about Guralnik’s life.  Here’s another press release, from Brown University.

Guralnik, with Tom Kibble and Carl Hagen, wrote one of the four 1964 papers which represent the birth of the idea of the “Higgs” field, now understood as the source of mass for the known elementary particles — an idea that was confirmed by the discovery of a type of “Higgs” particle in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider.  (I find it sad that the obituary is sullied with a headline that contains the words “God Particle” — a term that no physicist involved in the relevant research ever used, and which was invented in the 1990s, not as science or even as religion, but for $$$… by someone who was trying to sell his book.) The other three papers — the first by Robert Brout and Francois Englert, and the second and third by Peter Higgs, were rewarded with a Nobel Prize in 2013; it was given just to Englert and Higgs, Brout having died too early, in 2011.  Though Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble won many other prizes, they were not awarded a Nobel for their work, a decision that will remain forever controversial.

But at least Guralnik lived long enough to learn, as Brout sadly did not, that his ideas were realized in nature, and to see the consequences of these ideas in real data. In the end, that’s the real prize, and one that no human can award.

The Amazing Feat of Quantum Tunneling

Our quantum world has many odd and counter-intuitive features.  One of these is “tunneling” — the ability of objects to pass through walls, escape from traps, and slip under mountains into the next valley.   We don’t encounter this effect in daily life; objects we’re used to are so incredibly unlikely to tunnel from one place to another that we will never hear of one doing the apparently impossible.   But in the atomic and subatomic realms, even in various types of modern technology, tunneling is an essential and commonplace feature of the quantum reality in which we live.

I’ve written a short article about this phenomenon, which you can read here, emphasizing the central role that tunneling plays in the world’s most powerful microscopes.  It should be suitable for anyone who has read a little about atoms.

This article lays the groundwork for a discussion of how tunneling could someday, in the distant future, end the universe as we know it.  It also prepares the way for a more advanced post about how a single physics theory (i.e., a set of equations designed to describe some aspect of nature) may have multiple `vacua’ (i.e. multiple solutions that each represent different ways that the universe could be configured — what empty space could be like, and what types of fields, forces and particles could be found in the universe — over long periods of time.)  If that’s confusing, stay tuned for a few days; I’ll soon explain it.

Which Parts of the Big Bang Theory are Reliable, and Why?

Familiar throughout our international culture, the “Big Bang” is well-known as the theory that scientists use to describe and explain the history of the universe. But the theory is not a single conceptual unit, and there are parts that are more reliable than others.

It’s important to understand that the theory — a set of equations describing how the universe (more precisely, the observable patch of our universe, which may be a tiny fraction of the universe) changes over time, and leading to sometimes precise predictions for what should, if the theory is right, be observed by humans in the sky — actually consists of different periods, some of which are far more speculative than others.  In the more speculative early periods, we must use equations in which we have limited confidence at best; moreover, data relevant to these periods, from observations of the cosmos and from particle physics experiments, is slim to none. In more recent periods, our confidence is very, very strong.

In my “History of the Universe” article [see also my related articles on cosmic inflation, on the Hot Big Bang, and on the pre-inflation period; also a comment that the Big Bang is an expansion, not an explosion!], the following figure appears, though without the colored zones, which I’ve added for this post. The colored zones emphasize what we know, what we suspect, and what we don’t know at all.

History of the Universe, taken from my article with the same title, with added color-coded measures of how confident we can be in its accuracy.  In each colored zone, the degree of confidence and the observational/experimental source of that confidence is indicated. Three different possible starting points for the "Big Bang" are noted at the bottom; different scientists may mean different things by the term.

History of the Universe, taken from my article with the same title, with added color-coded measures of how confident we can be in our understanding. In each colored zone, the degree of confidence and the observational/experimental source of that confidence is indicated. Three different possible starting points for the “Big Bang” are noted at the bottom; note that individual scientists may mean different things by the term.

Notice that in the figure, I don’t measure time from the start of the universe.  That’s because I don’t know how or when the universe started (and in particular, the notion that it started from a singularity, or worse, an exploding “cosmic egg”, is simply an over-extrapolation to the past and a misunderstanding of what the theory actually says.) Instead I measure time from the start of the Hot Big Bang in the observable patch of the universe.  I also don’t even know precisely when the Hot Big Bang started, but the uncertainty on that initial time (relative to other events) is less than one second — so all the times I’ll mention, which are much longer than that, aren’t affected by this uncertainty.

I’ll now take you through the different confidence zones of the Big Bang, from the latest to the earliest, as indicated in the figure above.

Continue reading

If It Holds Up, What Might BICEP2’s Discovery Mean?

Well, yesterday was quite a day, and I’m still sifting through the consequences.

First things first.  As with all major claims of discovery, considerable caution is advised until the BICEP2 measurement has been verified by some other experiment.   Moreover, even if the measurement is correct, one should not assume that the interpretation in terms of gravitational waves and inflation is correct; this requires more study and further confirmation.

The media is assuming BICEP2’s measurement is correct, and that the interpretation in terms of inflation is correct, but leading scientists are not so quick to rush to judgment, and are thinking things through carefully.  Scientists are cautious not just because they’re trained to be thoughtful and careful but also because they’ve seen many claims of discovery withdrawn or discredited; discoveries are made when humans go where no one has previously gone, with technology that no one has previously used — and surprises, mistakes, and misinterpretations happen often.

But in this post, I’m going to assume assume assume that BICEP2’s results are correct, or essentially correct, and are being correctly interpreted.  Let’s assume that [here's a primer on yesterday's result that defines these terms]

  • they really have detected “B-mode polarization” in the “CMB” [Cosmic Microwave Background, the photons (particles of light) that are the ancient, cool glow leftover from the Hot Big Bang]
  • that this B-mode polarization really is a sign of gravitational waves generated during a brief but dramatic period of cosmic inflation that immediately preceded the Hot Big Bang,

Then — IF BICEP2’s results were basically right and were being correctly interpreted concerning inflation — what would be the implications?

Well… Wow…  They’d really be quite amazing. Continue reading

My New Articles on Big Bang, Inflation, Etc.

I haven’t written in detail about the history of the universe before, but with an important announcement coming up today, it was clearly time I do so.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did the universe begin?

You may have heard that “the Big Bang theory says that the universe began with a giant explosion.” THIS IS FALSE. That’s not what the original Big Bang Theory said, and it’s certainly not what the modern form of the Big Bang Theory says. The Big Bang is not like a Big Bomb. It’s not an explosion. It’s not like a seed exploding or expanding into empty space. It’s an expansion of space itself — space that was already large. And in the modern theory of the Big Bang, the hot, dense, cooling universe that people think of as the Big Bang wasn’t even the beginning.

How did the universe begin? We haven’t the faintest idea.

That’s right; we don’t know. And that’s not surprising; we can trace the history back a long way, an amazingly long way, but at some point, what we know, or even what we can make educated guesses about, drops to zero.

Unfortunately, in books, on websites, and on many TV programs, there are many, many, many, many, many descriptions of the universe that say that the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe — that the universe started with a singularity (one which they incorrectly draw as a point in space, rather than a moment in time) — and that we know everything (or can guess everything) that happened after the beginning of the universe. Many of them even explicitly say that the Big Bang was an explosion, or they illustrate it that way — as in, for instance, Stephen Hawking’s TV special on the universe. [Sigh --- How are scientists supposed to explain these ideas correctly to the public when Stephen Hawking's own TV program shows a completely misleading video?!] This is just not true, as any serious expert will tell you.

So what do we actually know? or at least suspect?

Out of the fog of our ignorance comes the strong suspicion — not yet the certainty — that at some point in the distant past (about 13.7 billion years ago) the part of the universe that we can currently observe (let’s call it “the observable patch” of the universe) was subjected to an extraordinary event, called “inflation”.

We suspect it. We have some considerable evidence. We’re looking for more evidence. We might learn more about this any day now. Maybe today’s our day.

Stay tuned for the announcement of a “Major Discovery” out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics later today.  And then stay further tuned for the community’s interpretation of its reliability.