Tag Archives: DarkMatter

More on Dark Matter and the Large Hadron Collider

As promised in my last post, I’ve now written the answer to the second of the three questions I posed about how the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] can search for dark matter.  You can read the answers to the first two questions here. The first question was about how scientists can possibly look for something that passes through a detector without leaving any trace!  The second question is how scientists can tell the difference between ordinary production of neutrinos — which also leave no trace — and production of something else. [The answer to the third question — how one could determine this “something else” really is what makes up dark matter — will be added to the article later this week.]

In the meantime, after Monday’s post, I got a number of interesting questions about dark matter, why most experts are confident it exists, etc.  There are many reasons to be confident; it’s not just one argument, but a set of interlocking arguments.  One of the most powerful comes from simulations of the universe’s history.  These simulations

  • start with what we think we know about the early universe from the cosmic microwave background [CMB], including the amount of ordinary and dark matter inferred from the CMB (assuming Einstein’s gravity theory is right), and also including the degree of non-uniformity of the local temperature and density;
  • and use equations for known physics, including Einstein’s gravity, the behavior of gas and dust when compressed and heated, the effects of various forms of electromagnetic radiation on matter, etc.

The output of the these simulations is a prediction for the universe today — and indeed, it roughly has the properties of the one we inhabit.

Here’s a video from the Illustris collaboration, which has done the most detailed simulation of the universe so far.  Note the age of the universe listed at the bottom as the video proceeds.  On the left side of the video you see dark matter.  It quickly clumps under the force of gravity, forming a wispy, filamentary structure with dense knots, which then becomes rather stable; moderately dense regions are blue, highly dense regions are pink.  On the right side is shown gas.  You see that after the dark matter structure begins to form, that structure attracts gas, also through gravity, which then forms galaxies (blue knots) around the dense knots of dark matter.  The galaxies then form black holes with energetic disks and jets, and stars, many of which explode.   These much more complicated astrophysical effects blow clouds of heated gas (red) into intergalactic space.

Meanwhile, the distribution of galaxies in the real universe, as measured by astronomers, is illustrated in this video from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.   You can see by eye that the galaxies in our universe show a filamentary structure, with big nearly-empty spaces, and loose strings of galaxies ending in big clusters.  That’s consistent with what is seen in the Illustris simulation.

Now if you’d like to drop the dark matter idea, the question you have to ask is this: could the simulations still give a universe similar to ours if you took dark matter out and instead modified Einstein’s gravity somehow?  [Usually this type of change goes under the name of MOND.]

In the simulation, gravity causes the dark matter, which is “cold” (cosmo-speak for “made from objects traveling much slower than light speed”), to form filamentary structures that then serve as the seeds for gas to clump and form galaxies.  So if you want to take the dark matter out, and instead change gravity to explain other features that are normally explained by dark matter, you have a challenge.   You are in danger of not creating the filamentary structure seen in our universe.  Somehow your change in the equations for gravity has to cause the gas to form galaxies along filaments, and do so in the time allotted.  Otherwise it won’t lead to the type of universe that we actually live in.

Challenging, yes.  Challenging is not the same as impossible. But everyone one should understand that the arguments in favor of dark matter are by no means limited to the questions of how stars move in galaxies and how galaxies move in galaxy clusters.  Any implementation of MOND has to explain a lot of other things that, in most experts’ eyes, are efficiently taken care of by cold dark matter.

Dark Matter: How Could the Large Hadron Collider Discover It?

Dark Matter. Its existence is still not 100% certain, but if it exists, it is exceedingly dark, both in the usual sense — it doesn’t emit light or reflect light or scatter light — and in a more general sense — it doesn’t interact much, in any way, with ordinary stuff, like tables or floors or planets or  humans. So not only is it invisible (air is too, after all, so that’s not so remarkable), it’s actually extremely difficult to detect, even with the best scientific instruments. How difficult? We don’t even know, but certainly more difficult than neutrinos, the most elusive of the known particles. The only way we’ve been able to detect dark matter so far is through the pull it exerts via gravity, which is big only because there’s so much dark matter out there, and because it has slow but inexorable and remarkable effects on things that we can see, such as stars, interstellar gas, and even light itself.

About a week ago, the mainstream press was reporting, inaccurately, that the leading aim of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], after its two-year upgrade, is to discover dark matter. [By the way, on Friday the LHC operators made the first beams with energy-per-proton of 6.5 TeV, a new record and a major milestone in the LHC’s restart.]  There are many problems with such a statement, as I commented in my last post, but let’s leave all that aside today… because it is true that the LHC can look for dark matter.   How?

When people suggest that the LHC can discover dark matter, they are implicitly assuming

  • that dark matter exists (very likely, but perhaps still with some loopholes),
  • that dark matter is made from particles (which isn’t established yet) and
  • that dark matter particles can be commonly produced by the LHC’s proton-proton collisions (which need not be the case).

You can question these assumptions, but let’s accept them for now.  The question for today is this: since dark matter barely interacts with ordinary matter, how can scientists at an LHC experiment like ATLAS or CMS, which is made from ordinary matter of course, have any hope of figuring out that they’ve made dark matter particles?  What would have to happen before we could see a BBC or New York Times headline that reads, “Large Hadron Collider Scientists Claim Discovery of Dark Matter”?

Well, to address this issue, I’m writing an article in three stages. Each stage answers one of the following questions:

  1. How can scientists working at ATLAS or CMS be confident that an LHC proton-proton collision has produced an undetected particle — whether this be simply a neutrino or something unfamiliar?
  2. How can ATLAS or CMS scientists tell whether they are making something new and Nobel-Prizeworthy, such as dark matter particles, as opposed to making neutrinos, which they do every day, many times a second?
  3. How can we be sure, if ATLAS or CMS discovers they are making undetected particles through a new and unknown process, that they are actually making dark matter particles?

My answer to the first question is finished; you can read it now if you like.  The second and third answers will be posted later during the week.

But if you’re impatient, here are highly compressed versions of the answers, in a form which is accurate, but admittedly not very clear or precise.

  1. Dark matter particles, like neutrinos, would not be observed directly. Instead their presence would be indirectly inferred, by observing the behavior of other particles that are produced alongside them.
  2. It is impossible to directly distinguish dark matter particles from neutrinos or from any other new, equally undetectable particle. But the equations used to describe the known elementary particles (the “Standard Model”) predict how often neutrinos are produced at the LHC. If the number of neutrino-like objects is larger that the predictions, that will mean something new is being produced.
  3. To confirm that dark matter is made from LHC’s new undetectable particles will require many steps and possibly many decades. Detailed study of LHC data can allow properties of the new particles to be inferred. Then, if other types of experiments (e.g. LUX or COGENT or Fermi) detect dark matter itself, they can check whether it shares the same properties as LHC’s new particles. Only then can we know if LHC discovered dark matter.

I realize these brief answers are cryptic at best, so if you want to learn more, please check out my new article.

The LHC restarts — in a manner of speaking —

As many of you will have already read, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], located at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, has “restarted”. Well, a restart of such a machine, after two years of upgrades, is not a simple matter, and perhaps we should say that the LHC has “begun to restart”. The process of bringing the machine up to speed begins with one weak beam of protons at a time — with no collisions, and with energy per proton at less than 15% of where the beams were back in 2012. That’s all that has happened so far.

If that all checks out, then the LHC operators will start trying to accelerate a beam to higher energy — eventually to record energy, 40% more than in 2012, when the LHC last was operating.  This is the real test of the upgrade; the thousands of magnets all have to work perfectly. If that all checks out, then two beams will be put in at the same time, one going clockwise and the other counterclockwise. Only then, if that all works, will the beams be made to collide — and the first few collisions of protons will result. After that, the number of collisions per second will increase, gradually. If everything continues to work, we could see the number of collisions become large enough — approaching 1 billion per second — to be scientifically interesting within a couple of months. I would not expect important scientific results before late summer, at the earliest.

This isn’t to say that the current milestone isn’t important. There could easily have been (and there almost were) magnet problems that could have delayed this event by a couple of months. But delays could also occur over the coming weeks… so let’s not expect too much in 2015. Still, the good news is that once the machine gets rolling, be it in May, June, July or beyond, we have three to four years of data ahead of us, which will offer us many new opportunities for discoveries, anticipated and otherwise.

One thing I find interesting and odd is that many of the news articles reported that finding dark matter is the main goal of the newly upgraded LHC. If this is truly the case, then I, and most theoretical physicists I know, didn’t get the memo. After all,

  • dark matter could easily be of a form that the LHC cannot produce, (for example, axions, or particles that interact only gravitationally, or non-particle-like objects)
  • and even if the LHC finds signs of something that behaves like dark matter (i.e. something that, like neutrinos, cannot be directly detected by LHC’s experiments), it will be impossible for the LHC to prove that it actually is dark matter.  Proof will require input from other experiments, and could take decades to obtain.

What’s my own understanding of LHC’s current purpose? Well, based on 25 years of particle physics research and ten years working almost full time on LHC physics, I would say (and I do say, in my public talks) that the coming several-year run of the LHC is for the purpose of

  1. studying the newly discovered Higgs particle in great detail, checking its properties very carefully against the predictions of the “Standard Model” (the equations that describe the known apparently-elementary particles and forces)  to see whether our current understanding of the Higgs field is complete and correct, and
  2. trying to find particles or other phenomena that might resolve the naturalness puzzle of the Standard Model, a puzzle which makes many particle physicists suspicious that we are missing an important part of the story, and
  3. seeking either dark matter particles or particles that may be shown someday to be “associated” with dark matter.

Finding dark matter itself is a worthy goal, but the LHC may simply not be the right machine for the job, and certainly can’t do the job alone.

Why the discrepancy between these two views of LHC’s purpose? One possibility is that since everybody has heard of dark matter, the goal of finding it is easier for scientists to explain to journalists, even though it’s not central.  And in turn, it is easier for journalists to explain this goal to readers who don’t care to know the real situation.  By the time the story goes to press, all the modifiers and nuances uttered by the scientists are gone, and all that remains is “LHC looking for dark matter”.  Well, stay tuned to this blog, and you’ll get a much more accurate story.

Fortunately a much more balanced story did appear in the BBC, due to Pallab Ghosh…, though as usual in Europe, with rather too much supersymmetry and not enough of other approaches to the naturalness problem.   Ghosh also does mention what I described in the italicized part of point 3 above — the possibility of what he calls the “wonderfully evocatively named `dark sector’ ”.  [Mr. Ghosh: back in 2006, well before these ideas were popular, Kathryn Zurek and I named this a “hidden valley”, potentially relevant either for dark matter or the naturalness problem. We like to think this is a much more evocative name.]  A dark sector/hidden valley would involve several types of particles that interact with one another, but interact hardly at all with anything that we and our surroundings are made from.  Typically, one of these types of particles could make up dark matter, but the others would unsuitable for making dark matter.  So why are these others important?  Because if they are produced at the LHC, they may decay in a fashion that is easy to observe — easier than dark matter itself, which simply exits the LHC experiments without a trace, and can only be inferred from something recoiling against it.   In other words, if such a dark sector [or more generally, a hidden valley of any type] exists, the best targets for LHC’s experiments (and other experiments, such as APEX or SHiP) are often not the stable particles that could form dark matter but their unstable friends and associates.

But this will all be irrelevant if the collider doesn’t work, so… first things first.  Let’s all wish the accelerator physicists success as they gradually bring the newly powerful LHC back into full operation, at a record energy per collision and eventually a record collision rate.

Dark Matter Debates

Last week I attended the Eighth Harvard-Smithsonian Conference on Theoretical Astrophysics, entitled “Debates on the Nature of Dark Matter”, which brought together leading figures in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and particle physics. Although there wasn’t much that was particularly new, it was a very useful conference for taking stock of where we are. I thought I’d bring you a few selected highlights that particularly caught my eye. Continue reading

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.  (Caution: there is a subtlety in the use of the words “Extremely Cold”; there are subtle quantum effects that I haven’t yet written about that complicate this notion.)

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

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?

Could the Higgs Decay to New Z-like Particles?

Today I’m continuing with my series, begun last Tuesday (click here for more details on the project), on the possibility that the Higgs particle discovered 18 months ago might decay in unexpected ways.

I’ve finished an article describing how we can, with current and with future Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data, look for a Higgs particle decaying to two new spin one particles, somewhat similar to the Z particle, but with smaller mass and much weaker interactions with ordinary matter.  [For decays to spin zero particles, click here.] Just using existing published plots on LHC events with two lepton/anti-lepton pairs, my colleagues and I, in our recent paper, were able to put strong limits on this scenario: for certain masses, decays to the new particles can occur in at most one in a few thousand Higgs particles.  The ATLAS and CMS experiments could certainly do better, perhaps even to the point of making a discovery with existing data, if this process is occurring in nature.

The Higgs could decay to two new spin-one particles, here labelled ZD, which in turn could each produce a lepton/anti-lepton pair.  The resulting signature would be spectacular, but neither ATLAS nor CMS has done a optimizal search for this signal covering the full allowed ZD mass range.

The Higgs could decay to two new spin-one particles, here labelled ZD, which in turn could each produce a lepton/anti-lepton pair (e = electron, μ = muon). The resulting signature would be spectacular, but neither ATLAS nor CMS has yet published an optimal search for this signal across the full allowed ZD mass range.

You might wonder how particle physicists could have missed a particle with a mass lower than that of the Z particle; wouldn’t we already have observed it? A clue as to how this can occur: it took much longer to discover the muon neutrino than the muon, even though the neutrino has a much lower mass. Similarly, it took much longer to discover the Higgs particle than the top quark, even though the Higgs has a lower mass. Why did this happen?

It happened because muon neutrinos interact much more weakly with ordinary matter than do muons, and are therefore much harder to produce, measure and study than are muons. Something similar is true of the Higgs particle compared to the top quark; although the top quark is nearly 50% heavier than the Higgs, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] produces 20 times as many top quarks and anti-quarks as Higgs particles, and the signature of a top quark is usually more distinctive. So new low-mass particles to which the Higgs particle can perhaps decay could easily have been missed, if they interact much more weakly with ordinary matter than do the Z particle, top quark, bottom quark, muon, etc.

The muon neutrino was discovered not because these neutrinos were directly produced in collisions of ordinary matter but rather because muons were first produced, and these then decayed to muon neutrinos (plus an electron and an electron anti-neutrino).  Similarly, new particles may be discovered not because we produce them directly in ordinary matter collisions, but because, as in the above figure, we first produce a Higgs particle in proton-proton collisions at the LHC, and the Higgs may then in turn decay to them.

I should emphasize that direct searches for these types of new particles are taking place, using both old and new data from a variety of particle physics machines (here’s one example.) But it is often the case that these direct searches are not powerful enough to find the new particles, at least not soon, and therefore they may first show up in unexpected exotic decays of the Higgs… especially since the LHC has already produced a million Higgs particles, most of them at the ATLAS and CMS experiments, with a smaller fraction at LHCb.

I hope that some ATLAS and CMS experimenters are looking for this signal… and that we’ll hear results at the upcoming Moriond conference.

X-Rays From Dark Matter? A Little Hint For You To Enjoy

Well it’s not much to write home about, and I’m not going to write about it in detail right now, but the Resonaances blog has done so (and he’s asking for your traffic, so please click):

A team of six astronomers reports that when they examine the light (more specifically, the X-rays) coming from clusters of galaxies around the sky, and account for all the X-ray emission lines [light emitted in extremely narrow bands by atoms or their nuclei] they know about, there’s an excess of photons [particles of light] with energy E=(3.55-3.57)+/-0.03 keV, a “weak unidentified emission line”, that can’t easily be explained.  What could it be?

[A keV is 1000 eV; an eV is an electron-volt, an amount of energy typical of chemical reactions.  Note that physicists and astronomers commonly use the word “light” to refer not just to “visible light” — the light you can see — but to all electromagnetic waves, no matter what their frequency. ]

Well first: is this emission line really there?  The astronomers claim to detect it in several ways, but “the detection is at the limit of the current instrument capabilities and subject to significant modeling uncertainties” — in other words, it requires some squinting — so they are cautious in their statements.

Second: if it’s really there, what’s it due to?  Well, the most exciting and least likely possibility is that it’s from dark matter particles decaying to a photon with the above-mentioned energy plus a second, unobserved, particle — perhaps a neutrino, perhaps something else.   I’ll let Resonaances explain the sterile neutrino hypothesis, in which the dark matter particles are kind of like neutrinos — they’re fermions, like neutrinos, and they are connected to neutrinos in some way, though they aren’t as directly affected by the weak nuclear force.

But before you get excited, note that the authors state: “However, based on the cluster masses and distances, the line in Perseus is much brighter than expected in this model, significantly deviating from other subsamples.”  In other words: don’t get excited, because something very funny is going on in the Perseus cluster, and until that’s understood, the data can’t be said to be particularly consistent with a dark matter hypothesis.

One more anomaly — one more hint of dark matter — to put on the pile of weak and largely unrelated hints that we’ve already got!  I don’t suggest losing sleep over it… at least not until it’s confirmed by other groups and the Perseus cluster’s odd emissions are explained.