BICEP2: New Evidence Of Cosmic Inflation!

[For your reference if you can't follow this post: My History of the Universe, and a primer to help you understand what's going on today.]

I’m still updating this post as more information comes in and as I understand more of what’s in the BICEP2 paper and data. Talking to and listening to experts, I’d describe the mood as cautiously optimistic; some people are worried about certain weird features of the data, while others seem less concerned about them… typical when a new discovery is claimed.  I’m disturbed that the media is declaring victory before the scientific community is ready to.  That didn’t happen with the Higgs discovery, where the media was, wisely, far more patient.

The Main Data

Here’s BICEP2′s data!  The black dots at the bottom of this figure, showing evidence of B-mode polarization both at small scales (“Multipole” >> 100, where it is due to gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization) and at large scales (“Multipole” << 100, where it is potentially due to gravitational waves from a period of cosmic inflation preceding the Hot Big Bang.) All the other dots on the figure are from other experiments, including the original BICEP, which only put upper bounds on how big the B-mode polarization could be.  So all the rest of the points are previous non-detections.

From the BICEP2 paper.

From the BICEP2 paper, showing the power in B-mode polarization as a function of scale on the sky (“Multipole”).  Small multipole is large scale (and possibly due to gravitational waves) and large multiple is small scale (and due to gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization.)   The black dots are BICEP2′s detection; all other points are non-detections by previous experiments.  (Earlier discoveries of B-mode polarization at large Multipole are, for some reason, not shown on this plot.)  The leftmost 3 or 4 points are the ones that give evidence for B-mode polarization from cosmic effects, and therefore possibly for gravitational waves at early times, and therefore, possibly, for cosmic inflation preceding the Hot Big Bang!

Continue reading

A Primer On Today’s Events

The obvious questions and their brief answers, for those wanting to know what’s going on today. If you already know roughly what’s going on and want the bottom line, read the answer to the last question.

You may want to start by reading my History of the Universe articles, or at least having them available for reference.

The expectation is that today we’re going to hear from the BICEP2 experiment.

  • What is BICEP2?

BICEP2, located at the South Pole, is an experiment that looks out into the sky to study the polarization of the electromagnetic waves that are the echo of the Hot Big Bang; these waves are called the “cosmic microwave background”.

  • What are electromagnetic waves?

Electromagnetic waves are waves in the electric and magnetic fields that are present everywhere in space.  Visible light is an electromagnetic wave, as are X-rays, radio waves, and microwaves; the only difference between these types of electromagnetic waves is how fast they wiggle and how long the distance is from one wave crest to the next.   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.

Getting Ready for the Cosmic News

As many of you know already, we’re expecting some very significant news Monday, presumably from the BICEP2 experiment.  The rumors seem to concern a possible observation of “B-mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background radiation”, which, to the person on the street, could mean:

It would also be cool for at least one other reason: it would be yet another indirect detection of gravitational waves, which are predicted in Einstein’s theory of gravity (but not Newton’s), just as electromagnetic waves were predicted by Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism.  Note, however, it would not be the first such indirect detection; that honor belongs to this Nobel-Prize-winning measurement of the behavior of a pair of neutron stars which orbit each other, one of which is a pulsar.  (Attempts at direct detection are underway at LIGO.)

Of course, it’s possible the rumors aren’t correct, and that the implications will be completely different from what people currently expect.  But the press release announcing the Monday press conference specifically said “significant discovery”, so at least it will be interesting, one way or the other.

If you have no idea, or a limited idea, of what I just said, or if you’re not sure you have all the issues straight about the universe’s history and what “Big Bang” means, fear not: I have written the History of the Universe, designed for the non-expert.  Well, not all of the history, or all of the universe either, but the parts you’re going to want to know about for Monday’s announcement.  Those of you who are still awake are invited to read what I’ve put together and send comments about the parts that are unclear or any aspects that look incorrect.  I’ll have another post in the morning hours, and then the big announcement takes place just after noon, East Coast time.

Higgs Experts: A Small But Important Correction to a Previous Post

I have to admit that this post is really only important for experimentalists interested in searching for non-Standard Model decays of the Higgs particle.  I try to keep these technical posts very rare, but this time I do need to slightly amend a technical point that I made in an article a few weeks ago. Continue reading

Beyond Human Visibility

A couple of interesting scientific stories are making the rounds today, and worth a little physics and general science commentary. The first reminds us just how incredibly limited our sensory perceptions are in telling us about the world, by forcing us to imagine how it may look to animals whose perceptions are slightly different. The second reminds us just how little we know about our own planet. Continue reading

Dark Matter: Unseen, But Yet Again in the Limelight

The past two weeks have been busy!  I was on the road, consulting with and learning from particle experimenters and theorists at Caltech and the University of California at Irvine. And I’ve been giving talks: at the University of California Santa Barbara (for the Joe Polchinski Fest conference), at the University of California at Irvine, and yesterday in Boston at M.I.T. The Santa Barbara talk was only semi-technical, and is on-line.  The latter two, much more technical, focused on the two big projects that I completed this fall (one on whether searches for supersymmetry have been comprehensive, one on looking for unusual things the Higgs particle might do.)

While this has all been going on, there have been two big stories developing in dark matter searches, and those of you who already have heard about them will have noticed I have not written much about them yet.  (In fact I only wrote about one of them, and very partially.)  These stories are important, and also have some subtleties, which I want to make sure I understand fully before I try to explain them.  After consultations with some of the experts (including Kev Abazajian of U.C. Irvine and Tracey Slatyer of M.I.T) I’m a lot closer to that point, so an explanation will come soon, after I’ve done a bit more reading and learning.

For the moment let me just note that there are two completely different excesses —

  • one in X-ray photons (specifically photons with energies of about 3500 eV) noticed by two groups of scientists in a number of different galaxies, and
  • one in gamma ray photons (specifically photons with energies of 1 – 10 GeV [GeV = 1,000,000,000 eV]), extracted with care by one group of scientists from a complex set of astrophysical gamma ray sources, coming from a spherical region around, and extending well beyond, the center of our own galaxy.

These seem to the experts I’ve spoken with to be real excesses, signs of real phenomena — that is, they do not appear to be artifacts of measurement problems or to be pure statistical flukes. This is in contrast to yet another bright hint of dark matter — an excess of photons with energy of about 130 GeV measured by the Fermi satellite — which currently is suspected by some experts, though not all, to be due to a measurement problem.

But even if the experts are right about that, it still leaves the big question: are these excesses signals of previously unknown astrophysical phenomena, or are they signals of decaying or annihilating dark matter particles?  New astrophysics would be interesting too, but probably not Nobel-worthy, as dark matter would be.  There are arguments against astrophysical explanations in both cases, but they don’t seem by any means airtight yet.

Since the two excesses are completely different, it is highly likely that at least one of them is due to astrophysics.   [You can invent types of dark matter that would give you both signals -- but it would take a small miracle for two signals of the same dark matter particles to show up in the same year.]  In fact, it is quite likely, in my mind, that they’re both due to astrophysics, not particle physics. But dark matter might show up in this way, so these excesses have to be explored fully.  It could be that this is the moment when dark matter is finally revealed.  If so — would the real dark matter excess please stand up?

What if the Large Hadron Collider Finds Nothing Else?

In my last post, I expressed the view that a particle accelerator with proton-proton collisions of (roughly) 100 TeV of energy, significantly more powerful than the currently operational Large Hadron Collider [LHC] that helped scientists discover the Higgs particle, is an obvious and important next steps in our process of learning about the elementary workings of nature. And I described how we don’t yet know whether it will be an exploratory machine or a machine with a clear scientific target; it will depend on what the LHC does or does not discover over the coming few years.

What will it mean, for the 100 TeV collider project and more generally, if the LHC, having made possible the discovery of the Higgs particle, provides us with no more clues?  Specifically, over the next few years, hundreds of tests of the Standard Model (the equations that govern the known particles and forces) will be carried out in measurements made by the ATLAS, CMS and LHCb experiments at the LHC. Suppose that, as it has so far, the Standard Model passes every test that the experiments carry out? In particular, suppose the Higgs particle discovered in 2012 appears, after a few more years of intensive study, to be, as far the LHC can reveal, a Standard Model Higgs — the simplest possible type of Higgs particle?

Before we go any further, let’s keep in mind that we already know that the Standard Model isn’t all there is to nature. The Standard Model does not provide a consistent theory of gravity, nor does it explain neutrino masses, dark matter or “dark energy” (also known as the cosmological constant). Moreover, many of its features are just things we have to accept without explanation, such as the strengths of the forces, the existence of “three generations” (i.e., that there are two heavier cousins of the electron, two for the up quark and two for the down quark), the values of the masses of the various particles, etc. However, even though the Standard Model has its limitations, it is possible that everything that can actually be measured at the LHC — which cannot measure neutrino masses or directly observe dark matter or dark energy — will be well-described by the Standard Model. What if this is the case?

Michelson and Morley, and What They Discovered

In science, giving strong evidence that something isn’t there can be as important as discovering something that is there — and it’s often harder to do, because you have to thoroughly exclude all possibilities. [It's very hard to show that your lost keys are nowhere in the house --- you have to convince yourself that you looked everywhere.] A famous example is the case of Albert Michelson, in his two experiments (one in 1881, a second with Edward Morley in 1887) trying to detect the “ether wind”.

Light had been shown to be a wave in the 1800s; and like all waves known at the time, it was assumed to be a wave in something material, just as sound waves are waves in air, and ocean waves are waves in water. This material was termed the “luminiferous ether”. As we can detect our motion through air or through water in various ways, it seemed that it should be possible to detect our motion through the ether, specifically by looking for the possibility that light traveling in different directions travels at slightly different speeds.  This is what Michelson and Morley were trying to do: detect the movement of the Earth through the luminiferous ether.

Both of Michelson’s measurements failed to detect any ether wind, and did so expertly and convincingly. And for the convincing method that he invented — an experimental device called an interferometer, which had many other uses too — Michelson won the Nobel Prize in 1907. Meanwhile the failure to detect the ether drove both FitzGerald and Lorentz to consider radical new ideas about how matter might be deformed as it moves through the ether. Although these ideas weren’t right, they were important steps that Einstein was able to re-purpose, even more radically, in his 1905 equations of special relativity.

In Michelson’s case, the failure to discover the ether was itself a discovery, recognized only in retrospect: a discovery that the ether did not exist. (Or, if you’d like to say that it does exist, which some people do, then what was discovered is that the ether is utterly unlike any normal material substance in which waves are observed; no matter how fast or in what direction you are moving relative to me, both of us are at rest relative to the ether.) So one must not be too quick to assume that a lack of discovery is actually a step backwards; it may actually be a huge step forward.

Epicycles or a Revolution?

There were various attempts to make sense of Michelson and Morley’s experiment.   Some interpretations involved  tweaks of the notion of the ether.  Tweaks of this type, in which some original idea (here, the ether) is retained, but adjusted somehow to explain the data, are often referred to as “epicycles” by scientists.   (This is analogous to the way an epicycle was used by Ptolemy to explain the complex motions of the planets in the sky, in order to retain an earth-centered universe; the sun-centered solar system requires no such epicycles.) A tweak of this sort could have been the right direction to explain Michelson and Morley’s data, but as it turned out, it was not. Instead, the non-detection of the ether wind required something more dramatic — for it turned out that waves of light, though at first glance very similar to other types of waves, were in fact extraordinarily different. There simply was no ether wind for Michelson and Morley to detect.

If the LHC discovers nothing beyond the Standard Model, we will face what I see as a similar mystery.  As I explained here, the Standard Model, with no other particles added to it, is a consistent but extraordinarily “unnatural” (i.e. extremely non-generic) example of a quantum field theory.  This is a big deal. Just as nineteenth-century physicists deeply understood both the theory of waves and many specific examples of waves in nature  and had excellent reasons to expect a detectable ether, twenty-first century physicists understand quantum field theory and naturalness both from the theoretical point of view and from many examples in nature, and have very good reasons to expect particle physics to be described by a natural theory.  (Our examples come both from condensed matter physics [e.g. metals, magnets, fluids, etc.] and from particle physics [e.g. the physics of hadrons].) Extremely unnatural systems — that is, physical systems described by quantum field theories that are highly non-generic — simply have not previously turned up in nature… which is just as we would expect from our theoretical understanding.

[Experts: As I emphasized in my Santa Barbara talk last week, appealing to anthropic arguments about the hierarchy between gravity and the other forces does not allow you to escape from the naturalness problem.]

So what might it mean if an unnatural quantum field theory describes all of the measurements at the LHC? It may mean that our understanding of particle physics requires an epicyclic change — a tweak.  The implications of a tweak would potentially be minor. A tweak might only require us to keep doing what we’re doing, exploring in the same direction but a little further, working a little harder — i.e. to keep colliding protons together, but go up in collision energy a bit more, from the LHC to the 100 TeV collider. For instance, perhaps the Standard Model is supplemented by additional particles that, rather than having masses that put them within reach of the LHC, as would inevitably be the case in a natural extension of the Standard Model (here’s an example), are just a little bit heavier than expected. In this case the world would be somewhat unnatural, but not too much, perhaps through some relatively minor accident of nature; and a 100 TeV collider would have enough energy per collision to discover and reveal the nature of these particles.

Or perhaps a tweak is entirely the wrong idea, and instead our understanding is fundamentally amiss. Perhaps another Einstein will be needed to radically reshape the way we think about what we know.  A dramatic rethink is both more exciting and more disturbing. It was an intellectual challenge for 19th century physicists to imagine, from the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, that key clues to its explanation would be found in seeking violations of Newton’s equations for how energy and momentum depend on velocity. (The first experiments on this issue were carried out in 1901, but definitive experiments took another 15 years.) It was an even greater challenge to envision that the already-known unexplained shift in the orbit of Mercury would also be related to the Michelson-Morley (non)-discovery, as Einstein, in trying to adjust Newton’s gravity to make it consistent with the theory of special relativity, showed in 1913.

My point is that the experiments that were needed to properly interpret Michelson-Morley’s result

  • did not involve trying to detect motion through the ether,
  • did not involve building even more powerful and accurate interferometers,
  • and were not immediately obvious to the practitioners in 1888.

This should give us pause. We might, if we continue as we are, be heading in the wrong direction.

Difficult as it is to do, we have to take seriously the possibility that if (and remember this is still a very big “if”) the LHC finds only what is predicted by the Standard Model, the reason may involve a significant reorganization of our knowledge, perhaps even as great as relativity’s re-making of our concepts of space and time. Were that the case, it is possible that higher-energy colliders would tell us nothing, and give us no clues at all. An exploratory 100 TeV collider is not guaranteed to reveal secrets of nature, any more than a better version of Michelson-Morley’s interferometer would have been guaranteed to do so. It may be that a completely different direction of exploration, including directions that currently would seem silly or pointless, will be necessary.

This is not to say that a 100 TeV collider isn’t needed!  It might be that all we need is a tweak of our current understanding, and then such a machine is exactly what we need, and will be the only way to resolve the current mysteries.  Or it might be that the 100 TeV machine is just what we need to learn something revolutionary.  But we also need to be looking for other lines of investigation, perhaps ones that today would sound unrelated to particle physics, or even unrelated to any known fundamental question about nature.

Let me provide one example from recent history — one which did not lead to a discovery, but still illustrates that this is not all about 19th century history.

An Example

One of the great contributions to science of Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos and Gia Dvali was to observe (in a 1998 paper I’ll refer to as ADD, after the authors’ initials) that no one had ever excluded the possibility that we, and all the particles from which we’re made, can move around freely in three spatial dimensions, but are stuck (as it were) as though to the corner edge of a thin rod — a rod as much as one millimeter wide, into which only gravitational fields (but not, for example, electric fields or magnetic fields) may penetrate.  Moreover, they emphasized that the presence of these extra dimensions might explain why gravity is so much weaker than the other known forces.

Fig. 1: ADD's paper pointed out that no experiment as of 1998 could yet rule out the possibility that our familiar three dimensional world is a corner of a five-dimensional world, where the two extra dimensions are finite but perhaps as large as a millimeter.

Fig. 1: ADD’s paper pointed out that no experiment as of 1998 could yet rule out the possibility that our familiar three-dimensional world is a corner of a five-dimensional world, where the two extra dimensions are finite but perhaps as large as a millimeter.

Given the incredible number of experiments over the past two centuries that have probed distances vastly smaller than a millimeter, the claim that there could exist millimeter-sized unknown dimensions was amazing, and came as a tremendous shock — certainly to me. At first, I simply didn’t believe that the ADD paper could be right.  But it was.

One of the most important immediate effects of the ADD paper was to generate a strong motivation for a new class of experiments that could be done, rather inexpensively, on the top of a table. If the world were as they imagined it might be, then Newton’s (and Einstein’s) law for gravity, which states that the force between two stationary objects depends on the distance r between them as 1/r², would increase faster than this at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1.  This is illustrated in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: If the world were as sketched in Figure 1, then Newton/Einstein's law of gravity would be violated at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1.  The blue line shows Newton/Einstein's prediction; the red line shows what a universe like that in Figure 1 would predict instead.  Experiments done in the last few years agree with the blue curve down to a small fraction of a millimeter.

Fig. 2: If the world were as sketched in Figure 1, then Newton/Einstein’s law of gravity would be violated at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1. The blue line shows Newton/Einstein’s prediction; the red line shows what a universe like that in Figure 1 would predict instead. Experiments done in the last few years agree with the blue curve down to a small fraction of a millimeter.

These experiments are not easy — gravity is very, very weak compared to electrical forces, and lots of electrical effects can show up at very short distances and have to be cleverly avoided. But some of the best experimentalists in the world figured out how to do it (see here and here). After the experiments were done, Newton/Einstein’s law was verified down to a few hundredths of a millimeter.  If we live on the corner of a rod, as in Figure 1, it’s much, much smaller than a millimeter in width.

But it could have been true. And if it had, it might not have been discovered by a huge particle accelerator. It might have been discovered in these small inexpensive experiments that could have been performed years earlier. The experiments weren’t carried out earlier mainly because no one had pointed out quite how important they could be.

Ok Fine; What Other Experiments Should We Do?

So what are the non-obvious experiments we should be doing now or in the near future?  Well, if I had a really good suggestion for a new class of experiments, I would tell you — or rather, I would write about it in a scientific paper. (Actually, I do know of an important class of measurements, and I have written a scientific paper about them; but these are measurements to be done at the LHC, and don’t involve a entirely new experiment.)  Although I’m thinking about these things, I do not yet have any good ideas.  Until I do, or someone else does, this is all just talk — and talk does not impress physicists.

Indeed, you might object that my remarks in this post have been almost without content, and possibly without merit.  I agree with that objection.

Still, I have some reasons for making these points. In part, I want to highlight, for a wide audience, the possible historic importance of what might now be happening in particle physics. And I especially want to draw the attention of young people. There have been experts in my field who have written that non-discoveries at the LHC constitute a “nightmare scenario” for particle physics… that there might be nothing for particle physicists to do for a long time. But I want to point out that on the contrary, not only may it not be a nightmare, it might actually represent an extraordinary opportunity. Not discovering the ether opened people’s minds, and eventually opened the door for Einstein to walk through. And if the LHC shows us that particle physics is not described by a natural quantum field theory, it may, similarly, open the door for a young person to show us that our understanding of quantum field theory and naturalness, while as intelligent and sensible and precise as the 19th century understanding of waves, does not apply unaltered to particle physics, and must be significantly revised.

Of course the LHC is still a young machine, and it may still permit additional major discoveries, rendering everything I’ve said here moot. But young people entering the field, or soon to enter it, should not assume that the experts necessarily understand where the field’s future lies. Like FitzGerald and Lorentz, even the most brilliant and creative among us might be suffering from our own hard-won and well-established assumptions, and we might soon need the vision of a brilliant young genius — perhaps a theorist with a clever set of equations, or perhaps an experimentalist with a clever new question and a clever measurement to answer it — to set us straight, and put us onto the right path.