Category Archives: Particle Physics

More Examples of Possible Unexpected Higgs Decays

As I explained on Tuesday, I’m currently writing articles for this website that summarize the results of a study, on which I’m one of thirteen co-authors, of various types of decays that the newly-discovered Higgs particle might exhibit, with a focus on measurements that could be done now with 2011-2012 Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data, or very soon with 2015-2018 data.  See Tuesday’s post for an explanation of what this is all about.

On Tuesday I told you I’d created a page summarizing what we know about possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles, which in turn decay to quark pairs or lepton pairs according to our general expectation that heavier particles are preferred in spin-zero-particle decays. A number of theories (including models with more Higgs particles, certain non-minimal supersymmetric models, some Little Higgs models, and various dark matter models) predict this possibility.

Today I’ve added to that page (starting below figure 4) to include possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles which in turn decay to gluon or photon pairs, according to our general expectation that, if the new spin-zero particles don’t interact very strongly with quarks or leptons, then they will typically decay to the force particles, with a rate roughly related to the strengths of the corresponding forces.  While fewer known theories directly predict this possibility compared to the one in the previous paragraph, the ease of looking for Higgs particles decaying to four photons motivates an attempt to do so in current data.

I have a few other classes of Higgs particle exotic decays to cover, so more articles on this subject will follow shortly!

Unexpected Decays of the Higgs Particle: What We Found

A few weeks ago, I reported on the completion of a large project, with which I’ve been personally involved, to investigate how particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] could be searching, not only in the future but even right now, for possible “Exotic Decays” of the newly-discovered Higgs particle .

By the term “exotic decays” (also called “non-Standard-Model [non-SM] Decays”), we mean “decays of this particle that are not expected to occur unless there’s something missing from the Standard Model (the set of equations we use to describe the known elementary particles and forces and the simplest possible type of Higgs field and its particle).”  I’ve written extensively on this website about this possibility (see herehere,  hereherehereherehere and here), though mostly in general terms. In our recent paper on Exotic Decays, we have gone into nitty-gritty detail… the sort of detail only an expert could love.  This week I’m splitting the difference, providing a detailed and semi-technical overview of the results of our work.  This includes organized lists of some of the decays we’re most likely to run across, and suggestions regarding the ones most promising to look for (which aren’t always the most common ones.)

Before I begin, let me again mention the twelve young physicists who were co-authors on this work, all of whom are pre-tenure and several of whom are still not professors yet.  [ When New Scientist reported on our work, they unfortunately didn't even mention, much less list, my co-authors.] They are (in alphabetical order): David Curtin, Rouven Essig, Stefania Gori, Prerit Jaiswal, Andrey Katz, Tao Liu, Zhen Liu, David McKeen, Jessie Shelton, Ze’ev Surujon, Brock Tweedie, and Yi-Ming Zhong. Continue reading

Galileo’s Winter

While the eastern half of the United States is having a cold winter so far, the same has not been true in Italy. The days I spent teaching in Florence (Firenze), at the Galileo Galilei Institute (GGI), were somewhat warmer than is apparently the usual, with even low temperatures far above freezing almost every night. A couple of people there said to me that they “hadn’t seen any winter yet”. So I was amused to read, on U.S. news websites, yet more reports of Americans uselessly debating the climate change issue — as though either the recent cold in the eastern U.S. or the recent warmth in Europe can tell us anything relevant to that discussion. (Here’s why it can’t.) It does seem to be widely forgotten in the United States that our country occupies only about 2% percent of the area of the Earth.

Of course the warmer Italian weather made my visit more pleasant, especially since the GGI is 20 minutes up a long hill — the Arcetri hill, of particular significance in scientific history. [I am grateful to the GGI, and the scientist- organizers of the school at which I taught, especially Stefania de Curtis, for making my visit to Arcetri and its sites possible.] The University of Florence used to be located there, and there are a number of astronomical observatories on the hill. And for particle physics, there is significance too. The building where I was teaching, and that hosts the GGI, used to be the department of Physics and Astronomy of the university. There, in 1925, Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, had his first professorial position. And while serving in that position, he figured out the statistical and thermodynamic properties of a gas made from particles that, in his honor, we now call “fermions”.  [His paper was recently translated into English by A. Zannoni.]

All particles in our world — elementary particles such as electrons and photons, and more complex objects such as atoms — are either fermions or bosons; the classic example of a fermion is an electron. The essential property of fermions is that two identical fermions cannot do precisely the same thing at the same time. For electrons in atoms, this is known as the Pauli exclusion principle (due to Wolfgang Pauli in 1925, based on 1924 research by Edmund Stoner): no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state. All of atomic physics and chemistry, and the very stability of large chunks of matter made from atoms, are dependent upon this principle. The properties of fermions also are crucial to the stability and structure of atomic nuclei, the existence of neutron stars, the electrical properties of metals and insulators, and the properties of many materials at cold temperatures.

Plaque commemorating Fermi's work on what we now call `fermions'. [Credit: M. Strassler]

Plaque commemorating Fermi’s work on what we now call `fermions’. [Credit: M. Strassler]

Inside the building is a plaque commemorating Fermi’s great achievement. But Fermi did not remain long in Florence, or even in Italy. A mere 15 years later, in the midst of the Fascist crisis and war in Europe, and having won a Nobel Prize for his work on radioactive atoms, Fermi had taken a position in the United States. There he directly oversaw the design, building and operation of humanity’s first nuclear reactor, in a secret underground laboratory at the University of Chicago, paving the way for the nuclear age.

But the main reason the Arcetri hill is famous for science is, ironically, because of a place of religion.

Both of Galileo’s daughters had taken the veil, and in 1631 the aging scientist was prompted to rent a villa on a small farm, within sight and a short walk of their nunnery.  Unfortunately, what must have seemed like an idyllic place to grow old and do science soon turned into a nightmare. After years of coexistence with and even support from within the Catholic Church, he had pushed too hard; his publication in 1632 of a comparison of the old Ptolemaic view of the universe, with the Earth at the center, with the newer Copernican view (to which he had greatly contributed, through his astronomical discoveries, in the 1610s), engendered a powerful backlash from some who viewed it as heretical. He was forced to spend 1633 defending himself in Rome and then living in exile in Sienna. When he was allowed to return to Arcetri in 1634, he was under house arrest and not allowed to have any scientific visitors. Shortly after his return, his 33-year-old daughter, with whom he was very close, died of a sudden and severe illness. His vision failed him, due to unknown diseases, and he was blind by 1638. Unable to go to Florence, his home town, scarcely three miles away, and rarely able to meet visitors, he spent the rest of his time in Arcetri isolated and increasingly ill, finally dying there in 1642.

Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, Galileo’s science did not come to a halt. (This was also partly because of the his support from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who interceded on his behalf to allow him some scientific assistance after he went blind.) At Arcetri, Galileo discovered the moon did not always present exactly the same face toward the Earth; it appears, to us on Earth, to wobble slightly. The explanation for this so-called “lunar libration” awaited Issac Newton’s laws of motion and of gravity, just 50 years away. And he finished formulating laws of motion (which would also later be explained by Newton), showing that (on Earth) objects tossed into the air follow a trajectory that mathematicians call a parabola, until affected by what we now call “air resistance”, and showing that uniform motion cannot be detected — the first Principle of Relativity, authored 270 years before Einstein presented his revision of Galileo’s ideas.

Vaulted ceiling in the main entry hall of Galileo's rented villa in Arcetri. (No, the light fixture is not original.) [Credit: M. Strassler]

Vaulted ceiling in the main entry hall of Galileo’s rented villa in Arcetri. (No, the light fixture is not original.) [Credit: M. Strassler]

To step into Galileo’s villa, as I did a few days ago, is therefore to step into a place of intense personal tragedy and one of great scientific achievement. One can easily imagine him writing by the window, or walking in the garden, or discussing the laws of motion with his assistants, in such a setting. It is also to be reminded that Galileo was not a poor man, thanks to his inventions and to his scientific appointments. The ceilings of the main rooms on the lower floor of the villa are high and vaulted, with attractively carved supports. There is a substantial “loggia” on the upper floor — a balcony, with pillars supporting a wooden roof, that (facing south-east, south and west) would have been ideal, while Galileo could still see, for observing the Moon and planets.

While Galileo’s luck ran badly in his later years, he had an extraordinary string of luck, as a younger scientist, at the beginning of the 1600s. First, in 1604, there was a supernova, as bright as the planet Jupiter, that appeared in the sky as a very bright new star. (Humans haven’t seen a correspondingly close and bright supernova since then, not even supernova 1987a.  There is one you can see with a small telescope right now though.) Observing that the glowing object showed no signs of parallax (see here for a description of how parallax can be used to determine the distance to an object), Galileo concluded that it must be further away than the Moon — and thus served as additional evidence that the heavens are not unchanging. Of course, what was seen was actually an exploding star, one that was nearly a trillion times further from the Earth than is the Moon — but this Galileo could not know.

Next, just a few years later, came the invention of the telescope. Hearing of this device, Galileo quickly built his own and figured out how to improve it. In the following years, armed with telescopes that could provide just 20-times magnification (typical binoculars you can buy can provide 10-times, and with much better optical quality than Galileo’s assistants could manufacture) came his great string of astronomical discoveries and co-discoveries:

  • the craters on the Moon (proving the Moon has mountains and valleys like the Earth),
  • the moons of Jupiter (proving that not everything orbits the Earth),
  • the phases of Venus and its changing apparent size as Venus moves about the sky (proving that Venus orbits the Sun),
  • the rings of Saturn (demonstrating Saturn is not merely a simple sphere),
  • sunspots (proving the sun is imperfect, changeable, and rotating),
  • and the vast number of stars in the Milky Way that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

One often hears 1905 referred to as Einstein’s miracle year, when he explained Brownian motion and calculated the size of atoms, introduced the notion of quanta of light to explain the photoelectric effect, and wrote his first two papers on special relativity. Well, one could say that Galileo had a miracle decade, most of it concentrated in 1610-1612— playing the decisive role in destroying the previously dominant Ptolemaic view of the universe, in which the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbit in a complex system of circles-within-circles around a stationary Earth.

We live in an era where so much more is known about the basic workings of the universe, and where a simple idea or invention is rarely enough to lead to a great change in our understanding of our world and of ourselves. And so I found myself, standing in Galileo’s courtyard, feeling a moment of nostalgia for that simpler time of the 17th century, cruel and dangerous as it was… a time when a brilliant scientist could stand on the balcony of his own home, looking through a telescope he’d designed himself, and change the world-view of a civilization.

Looking across the enclosed courtyard of the villa, at the second-floor loggia, suitable for telescopic observing.  It is not hard to imagine Galileo standing there and peering into the sky.  [Credit: M. Strassler]

Looking across the enclosed courtyard of the villa, at the second-floor loggia. It is not difficult to imagine Galileo standing there and peering into his telescope. [Credit: M. Strassler]

Teaching at a “Winter School”

Professors at research universities engage in many different activities, and one which is little known to the public involves teaching at short and focused “schools” for graduate students. These schools, which generally last one to four weeks, and are usually (but not always) held outside the main academic year in winter or summer, allow these students to learn advanced topics in short courses that their universities wouldn’t be able to offer.

For instance, at most universities in the United States, a course focused on the theory of quarks and gluons (the set of equations known as “QCD”) would be attended by just a few students. And many universities don’t even have a professor who is truly expert on this subject. But when interested students from many universities are brought together at one of these specially organized schools, a world’s expert on QCD can teach a group of students as large as fifty or more. Not only is there economy of scale in this arrangement, it also helps to foster a future community among the students who attend. I myself went to one such school when I was a graduate student, and the faculty and students I met there include a number who are my professional peers today.

Usually, professors are not paid to teach at these schools, even though preparing a course is often a huge amount of work. There are two inducements, other than the satisfaction derived from the teaching itself. The first is that travel and lodging are free for the teacher; they are paid for by the organizers of the school, who in turn get the required funds from their university and/or government organizations. The latter (wisely, in my opinion) see such schools as having national value, in that they help assure a strong national research community in the future. The second is that the schools are often held in places where a person would not regret spending a week. The schools at which I have taught over the years have occurred in Boulder, Colorado (USA); Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada); Fermilab National Lab in Aurora, Illinois (USA); Cambridge, England; Kyoto, Japan; and Varna, Bulgaria. I’ve also taught in Italy, previously in the towns of Trieste and Erice, and this month in Florence (i.e. Firenze). For the next ten days or so, I’ll be at the Galileo Galilei Institute for Theoretical Physics (GGI), which is named, of course, after Florence’s most famous scientist.

(Several of my previous short courses are available in written or video form, and most are still sufficiently up-to-date to be useful to future experts. All of them assume, at least in large part, that a student has had a beginning course in quantum field theory. I can provide some links later this week if there is interest, though most of them easily show up in a web search.)

This is my first visit to the GGI, which is associated with the University of Florence, and is located on a hill a couple of miles from downtown Florence, not very far from where Galileo himself lived for some years. It was founded around 2006 to host focused research workshops, as well as brief schools. The theoretical particle physics graduate students at this school have already learned about dark matter from Tomer Volansky (a collaborator of mine on a trigger-related project), and about supersymmetry from David Shih (a former colleague at Rutgers and a recent collaborator on a supersymmetry/LHC project.) They’ll also be learning about the Higgs phenomenon and its generalizations from Raman Sundrum (who’s been mentioned many times on this blog, and whom I visited last month); about the physics of “flavor” — including the issue of how the six different types quarks transition from one to another via the weak nuclear force — from Gino Isidori; and about the physics of quarks and gluons from one of the world’s great experts, Stefano Catani. (You may not recognize these names, as none of them have written books for the public or developed a popular website or blog; but any expert in the theoretical particle physics knows them very well.) And last and perhaps least, they’ll be learning various bits of particle physics that one ought to know in the context of particle colliders, and particularly of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], from me.

One corollary of this news is that I’ll be pretty busy for the next ten days, so I’m not sure how active the blog will really be. But I can promise you at least one post on string theory!

Visiting the University of Maryland

Along with two senior postdocs (Andrey Katz of Harvard and Nathaniel Craig of Rutgers) I’ve been visiting the University of Maryland all week, taking advantage of end-of-academic-term slowdowns to spend a few days just thinking hard, with some very bright and creative colleagues, about the implications of what we have discovered (a Higgs particle of mass 125-126 GeV/c²) and have not discovered (any other new particles or unexpected high-energy phenomena) so far at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].

The basic questions that face us most squarely are:

Is the naturalness puzzle

  1. resolved by a clever mechanism that adds new particles and forces to the ones we know?
  2. resolved by properly interpreting the history of the universe?
  3. nonexistent due to our somehow misreading the lessons of quantum field theory?
  4. altered dramatically by modifying the rules of quantum field theory and gravity altogether?

If (1) is true, it’s possible that a clever new “mechanism” is required.  (Old mechanisms that remove or ameliorate the naturalness puzzle include supersymmetry, little Higgs, warped extra dimensions, etc.; all of these are still possible, but if one of them is right, it’s mildly surprising we’ve seen no sign of it yet.)  Since the Maryland faculty I’m talking to (Raman Sundrum, Zakaria Chacko and Kaustubh Agashe) have all been involved in inventing clever new mechanisms in the past (with names like Randall-Sundrum [i.e. warped extra dimensions], Twin Higgs, Folded Supersymmetry, and various forms of Composite Higgs), it’s a good place to be thinking about this possibility.  There’s good reason to focus on mechanisms that, unlike most of the known ones, do not lead to new particles that are affected by the strong nuclear force. (The Twin Higgs idea that Chacko invented with Hock-Seng Goh and Roni Harnik is an example.)  The particles predicted by such scenarios could easily have escaped notice so far, and be hiding in LHC data.

Sundrum (some days anyway) thinks the most likely situation is that, just by chance, the universe has turned out to be a little bit unnatural — not a lot, but enough that the solution to the naturalness puzzle may lie at higher energies outside LHC reach.  That would be unfortunate for particle physicists who are impatient to know the answer… unless we’re lucky and a remnant from that higher-energy phenomenon accidentally has ended up at low-energy, low enough that the LHC can reach it.

But perhaps we just haven’t been creative enough yet to guess the right mechanism, or alter the ones we know of to fit the bill… and perhaps the clues are already in the LHC’s data, waiting for us to ask the right question.

I view option (2) as deeply problematic.  On the one hand, there’s a good argument that the universe might be immense, far larger than the part we can see, with different regions having very different laws of particle physics — and that the part we live in might appear very “unnatural” just because that very same unnatural appearance is required for stars, planets, and life to exist.  To be over-simplistic: if, in the parts of the universe that have no Higgs particle with mass below 700 GeV/c², the physical consequences prevent complex molecules from forming, then it’s not surprising we live in a place with a Higgs particle below that mass.   [It's not so different from saying that the earth is a very unusual place from some points of view -- rocks near stars make up a very small fraction of the universe --- but that doesn't mean it's surprising that we find ourselves in such an unusual location, because a planet is one of the few places that life could evolve.]

Such an argument is compelling for the cosmological constant problem.  But it’s really hard to come up with an argument that a Higgs particle with a very low mass (and corresponding low non-zero masses for the other known particles) is required for life to exist.  Specifically, the mechanism of “technicolor” (in which the Higgs field is generated as a composite object through a new, strong force) seems to allow for a habitable universe, but with no naturalness puzzle — so why don’t we find ourselves in a part of the universe where it’s technicolor, not a Standard Model-like Higgs, that shows up at the LHC?  Sundrum, formerly a technicolor expert, has thought about this point (with David E. Kaplan), and he agrees this is a significant problem with option (2).

By the way, option (2) is sometimes called the “anthropic principle”.  But it’s neither a principle nor “anthro-” (human-) related… it’s simply a bias (not in the negative sense of the word, but simply in the sense of something that affects your view of a situation) from the fact that, heck, life can only evolve in places where life can evolve.

(3) is really hard for me to believe.  The naturalness argument boils down to this:

  • Quantum fields fluctuate;
  • Fluctuations carry energy, called “zero-point energy”, which can be calculated and is very large;
  • The energy of the fluctuations of a field depends on the corresponding particle’s mass;
  • The particle’s mass, for the known particles, depends on the Higgs field;
  • Therefore the energy of empty space depends strongly on the Higgs field

Unless one of these five statements is wrong (good luck finding a mistake — every one of them involves completely basic issues in quantum theory and in the Higgs mechanism for giving masses) then there’s a naturalness puzzle.  The solution may be simple from a certain point of view, but it won’t come from just waving the problem away.

(4) I’d love for this to be the real answer, and maybe it is.  If our understanding of quantum field theory and Einstein’s gravity leads us to a naturalness problem whose solution should presumably reveal itself at the LHC, and yet nature refuses to show us a solution, then maybe it’s a naive use of field theory and gravity that’s at fault. But it may take a very big leap of faith, and insight, to see how to jump off this cliff and yet land on one’s feet.  Sundrum is well-known as one of the most creative and fearless individuals in our field, especially when it comes to this kind of thing. I’ve been discussing some radical notions with him, but mostly I’ve been enjoying hearing his many past insights and ideas… and about the equations that go with them.   Anyone can speculate, but it’s the equations (and the predictions, testable at least in principle if not in practice, that you can derive from them) that transform pure speculations into something that deserves the name “theoretical physics”.

What’s the Status of the LHC Search for Supersymmetry?

It’s been quite a while (for good reason, as you’ll see) since I gave you a status update on the search for supersymmetry, one of several speculative ideas for what might lie beyond the known particles and forces.  Specifically, supersymmetry is one option (the most popular and most reviled, perhaps, but hardly the only one) for what might resolve the so-called “naturalness” puzzle, closely related to the “hierarchy problem” — Why is gravity so vastly weaker than the other forces? Why is the Higgs particle‘s mass so small compared to the mass of the lightest possible black hole?

Click here to read more about the current situation…

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed Again by Alan Boyle

Today, Wednesday December 4th, at 8 pm Eastern/5 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed again by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/12/05/alan-boyle-matt-strassler-sean-carroll

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, blogger at Preposterous Universe, who recently completed an excellent and now prize-winning popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  "Cosmic Log"].

Sean and I were interviewed in February by Alan on this program; here’s the link.  I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

A Couple of Questions for Readers

Today I’m looking for insights from readers on two issues that were nagging me over the weekend.

The first issue has to do with the Fukushima nuclear accident and subsequent radiation fears, which I first brought up on this blog last week.   I’ve been thinking about how to write articles that explain radioactivity and radiation in rather plain language, and about what we know is dangerous and what we know is not.  One of the challenges is to confront the extreme irrationality of people’s fear of radioactivity.  I’d like to hear my readers’ opinions of where this fear really comes from.  One explanation of this fear that you’ll commonly read is that “radioactivity is scary because you can’t see or smell or feel it”.  But that makes no sense; you can’t see, smell, or feel viruses either, or low levels of chemicals, so why aren’t people equally afraid of those things?  Especially since the average person is far more at risk of getting cancer or other potentially deadly diseases from viruses (such as papilloma) or from chemicals (asbestos, benzene, etc.) then from radioactivity, despite all the atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s and the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant accidents.  So I don’t think this explanation is correct; there are plenty of invisible scary things in the world, and people’s fears are totally out of proportion to the true risks.  I have my own suspicions as to the real causes, but I am wondering what my readers think.

The second issue is more technical. Comet ISON, dubbed, as is typical of our sensationalist age, “comet of the century” before it has even become easily visible [and it might still be a dud, or it might be the best of the year or even the last twenty years; but of the century? check back in 2099!]) is approaching the sun.  There is indeed the tentative possibility, if it survives its very close encounter with the sun on November 28th, that it will give us a spectacular early morning display in December.  In preparation, I’m wanting to read more details about the properties of cometary tails, which are generated by the physics of particles and fields (photons, ions, magnetic fields, momentum conservation, etc.).  [Here's a nice video of ISON's tail and its interaction with the solar wind, the stream of charged particles emanating from the sun; also visible to its upper right is Comet Encke, which by chance is also near the sun.  By the way you can also see, watching Encke, that its tail is not a trail; it does not point along its direction of motion but instead points away from the sun.] But I’ve been unable to find anything online other than vague descriptions with no technical information, or references to books or review articles from several decades ago.  Do any of my readers know of a roughly up-to-date technical introduction to the physics of comets’ tails?

Thanks!