Tag Archives: decay

A Couple of Rare Events

Did you know that another name for Minneapolis, Minnesota is “Snowmass”?  Just ask a large number of my colleagues, who are in the midst of a once-every-few-years exercise aimed at figuring out what should be the direction of the U.S. particle physics program.  I quote:

  • The American Physical Society’s Division of Particles and Fields is pursuing a long-term planning exercise for the high-energy physics community. Its goal is to develop the community’s long-term physics aspirations. Its narrative will communicate the opportunities for discovery in high-energy physics to the broader scientific community and to the government.

They are doing so in perhaps the worst of times, when political attacks on science are growing, government cuts to science research are severe, budgets to fund the research programs of particle physicists like me have been chopped by jaw-dropping amounts (think 25% or worse, from last year’s budget to this year’s — you can thank the sequester).. and all this at a moment when the data from the Large Hadron Collider and other experiments are not yet able to point us in an obvious direction for our future research program.  Intelligent particle physicists disagree on what to do next, there’s no easy way to come to consensus, and in any case Congress is likely to ignore anything we suggest.  But at least I hear Minneapolis is lovely in July and August!  This is the first Snowmass workshop that I have missed in a very long time, especially embarrassing since my Ph.D. thesis advisor is one of the conveners.  What can I say?  I wish my colleagues well…!

Meanwhile, I’d like to comment briefly on a few particle physics stories that you’ve perhaps seen in the press over recent days. I’ll cover one of them today — a measurement of a rare process which has now been officially “discovered”, though evidence for it was quite strong already last fall — and address a couple of others later in the week.  After that I’ll tell you about a couple of other stories that haven’t made the popular press… Continue reading

Creating a New Particle from the Annihilation of Two Others

[Long silence should be over for now; personal issues had to take precedence for a little while.]

Back to building up articles on how the Higgs field works! As part of the necessary background, I’ve added another general article on how particles and fields interact with each other to my series on Particles and Fields (with a little math — first-year university level.)

This one explains, among other things, how a small modification of the equations of motion for fields allows two particles of one type to annihilate and create a third one of a different type.  Examples of such phenomena include the collision and annihilation of a quark and an antiquark to form a Z particle, or the collision and annihilation of two gluons to form a Higgs particle. Particle decay is often just the time-reversed process.

Moreover, similar modifications of the equations are essential in allowing the Higgs field to give mass to other particles.

So this is one of the most important articles, and one of the most sophisticated, to appear on this website so far.  Although there are a couple of animations to help you visualize what is going on, to understand the text you will want to have read the other articles in the Particles and Fields series first.

The Energy to Bind Them All

I have written a lot about energy, but I’ve put off introducing the most important type of energy again and again.  It’s the most important, because it is this type of energy that is responsible for all the structure in the universe, from galaxy clusters down to protons and everything in between.  It is the most challenging to write about because it is not particularly intuitive.   All the types of energy we intuitively understand, such as the energy of motion, are positive, but this type of energy, crucially, can be negative.  On this website I’ll call it “interaction energy” (not the technical term, but my own, chosen to avoid misconceptions that might otherwise arise) because it is associated with the interactions among fields — including their little ripples that we call “particles”.  If you’ve taken physics you’ve heard of “potential” energy; what you learned within that concept is a subset of what is included under interaction energy.

I’ve been wanting to address this for a while, because many of you have asked penetrating and central questions about the basic structure of matter, such as:

  • Why is the neutron stable inside of atomic nuclei, given that on its own it is unstable?
  • Why is the proton arguably heavier than the quarks and gluons that make it up?

And there are other equally important questions that no readers have yet stumbled upon but that I ought to address.  Before I can answer any of those questions, however, I have to first describe interaction energy and the role that it plays in structure.

So — without further ado, here’s the article.  This was an especially hard article to write and it may well be confusing in places — so I very much welcome your feedback, in order that I can try to make it clearer, if necessary, in later versions.

Professor Peskin’s Four Slogans: Advice for the 2012 LHC

On Monday, during the concluding session of the SEARCH Workshop on Large Hadron Collider [LHC] physics (see also here for a second post), and at the start of the panel discussion involving a group of six theorists, Michael Peskin, professor of theoretical particle physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center [and my Ph.D. advisor] opened the panel with a few powerpoint slides.  He entitled them: “My Advice in Four Slogans” — the advice in question being aimed at experimentalists at ATLAS and CMS (the two general-purpose experiments at the LHC) as to how they ought best to search for new phenomena at the LHC in 2012, and beyond. Since I agree strongly with his points (as I believe most LHC theory experts do), I thought I’d tell you those four slogans and explain what they mean, at least to me. [I'm told the panel discussion will be posted online soon.]

1. No Boson Left Behind

There is a tendency in the LHC experimental community to assume that the new particles that we are looking for are heavy — heavier than any we’ve ever produced before. However, it is equally possible that there are unknown particles that are rather lightweight, but have evaded detection because they interact very weakly with the particles that we already know about, and in particular very weakly with the quarks and antiquarks and gluons that make up the proton.

Peskin’s advice is thus a warning: don’t just rush ahead to look for the heavy particles; remember the lightweight but hard-to-find particles you may have missed.

The word “boson” here is a minor point, I think. All particles are either fermions or bosons; I’d personally say that Peskin’s slogan applies to certain fermions too.

2. Exclude Triangles Not Points

The meaning of this slogan is a less obscure than the slogan itself.  Its general message is this: if one is looking for signs of a new hypothetical particle which

  • is produced mostly or always in particle-antiparticle pairs, and
  • can decay in multiple ways,

one has to remember to search for collisions where the particle decays one way and the antiparticle decays a different way; the probability for this to occur can be high.  Most LHC searches have so far been aimed at those cases where both particle and anti-particle decay in the same way.  This approach can in some cases be quite inefficient.   In fact, to search efficiently, one must combine all the different search strategies.

Now what does this have to do with triangles and points?  If you’d like to know, jump to the very end of this post, where I explain the example that motivated this wording of the slogan.  For those not interested in those technical details, let’s go to the next slogan.

3. Higgs Implies Higgs in BSM

[The Standard Model is the set of equations used to predict the behavior of all the known particles and forces, along with the simplest possible type of Higgs particle (the Standard Model Higgs.) Any other phenomenon is by definition Beyond the Standard Model: BSM.]

 [And yes, one may think of the LHC as a machine for converting theorists' B(SM) speculations into (BS)M speculations.]

One of the main goals of the LHC is to find evidence of one or more types of Higgs particles that may be found in nature.  There are two main phases to this search, Phase 1 being the search for the “Standard Model Higgs”, and Phase 2 depending on the result of Phase 1.  You can read more about this here.

Peskin’s point is that the Higgs particle may itself be a beacon, signalling new phenomena not predicted by the Standard Model. It is common in many BSM theories that there are new ways of producing the Higgs particle, typically in decays of as-yet-unknown heavy particles. Some of the resulting phenomena may be quite easy to discover, if one simply remembers to look!

Think what a coup it would be to discover not only the Higgs particle but also an unexpected way of making it! Two Nobel prize-winning discoveries for the price of one!!

Another equally important way to read this slogan (and I’m not sure why Peskin didn’t mention it — maybe it was too obvious, and indeed every panel member said something about this during the following discussion) is that everything about the Higgs particle needs to be studied in very great detail. Most BSM theories predict that the Higgs particle will behave differently from what is predicted in the Standard Model, possibly in subtle ways, possibly in dramatic ways. Either its production mechanisms or its decay rates, or both, may easily be altered. So we should not assume that a Higgs particle that looks at first like a Standard Model Higgs actually is a Standard Model Higgs. (I’ve written about this here, here and here.)  Even a particle that looks very much like a Standard Model Higgs may offer, through precise measurements, the first opportunity to dethrone the Standard Model.

4. BSM Hides Beneath Top

At the Tevatron, the LHC’s predecessor,  top quark/anti-quark pairs were first discovered, but were rather rare. But the LHC has so much energy per collision that it has no trouble producing these particles. ATLAS and CMS have each witnessed about 800,000 top quark/anti-quark pairs so far.

Of course, this is great news, because the huge amount of LHC data on top quarks from 2011 allowed measurements of the top quark’s properties that are far more precise than we had previously. (I wrote about this here.) But there’s a drawback. Certain types of new phenomena that might be present in nature may be very hard to recognize, because the rare collisions that contain them look too similar to the common collisions that contain a top quark/anti-quark pair.

Peskin’s message is that the LHC experimenters need to do very precise measurements of all the data from collisions that appear to contain the debris from top quarks, just in case it’s a little bit different from what the Standard Model predicts.

A classic example of this problem involves the search for a supersymmetric partner of a top quark, the “top squark”. Unlike the t’ quark that I described a couple of slogans back, which would be produced with a fairly high rate and would be relatively easy to notice, top squarks would be produced with a rate that is several times smaller. [Technically, this has to do with the fact that the t' would have spin-1/2 and the top squark would have spin 0.] Unfortunately, if the mass of the top squark is not very different from the mass of the top quark, then collisions that produce top squarks may look very similar indeed to ones that produce top quarks, and it may be a big struggle to separate them in the data. The only way to do it is to work hard — to make very precise measurements and perhaps better calculations that can allow one to tell the subtle differences between a pile of data that contains both top quark/anti-quark pairs and top squark/anti-squark pairs, and a pile of data that contains no squarks at all.

Following up on slogan #2: An example with a triangle.

Ok, now let’s see why the second slogan has something to do with triangles.

One type of particle that has been widely hypothesized over the years is a heavy version of the top quark, often given the unimaginative name of “top-prime.” For short, top is written t, so top-prime is written t’. The t’ may decay in various possible ways. I won’t list all of them, but three important ones that show up in many speculative theories are

  • t’ → W particle + bottom quark   (t’ → Wb)
  • t’ → Z particle + top quark      (t’ → Zt)
  • t’ → Higgs particle + top quark    (t’ → ht)

But we don’t know how often t’ quarks decay to Wb, or to Zt, or to ht; that’s something we’ll have to measure. [Let’s call the probability that a t’ decays to Wb “P1”, and similarly define P2 and P3 for Zt and ht].

Of course we have to look for the darn thing first; maybe there is no t’. Unfortunately, how we should look for it depends on P1, P2, and P3, which we don’t know. For instance, if P1 is much larger than P2 and P3, then we should look for collisions that show signs of producing a t’ quark and a t‘ antiquark decaying as t’ → W+ b and t‘ → W- b. Or if P2 is much larger than P1 and P3, we should look for t’ → Zt and t‘ → Z t.

Peskin's triangle for a t' quark; at each vertex the probabilty for the decay labeling the vertex is 100%, while at dead center all three decays are equally probable. One must search in a way that is sensitive to all the possibilities.

Peskin has drawn this problem of three unknown probabilities, whose sum is 1, as a triangle.  The three vertices of the triangle, labeled by Wb, Zt and ht, represent three extreme cases: P1=1 and P2=P3=0; P2=1 and P1=P3=0; and P3=1, P1=P2=0. Each point inside this triangle represents different possible non-zero values for P1, P2 and P3 (with P1+P2+P3 assumed to be 1.)  The center of the triangle is P1=P2=P3=1/3.

Peskin’s point is that if the experiments only look for collisions where both quark and antiquark decay in the same way

  • t’ → W+ b and t‘ → W- b;
  • t’ → Zt and t‘ → Z t;
  • t’ → ht and t‘ → h t;

which is what they’ve done so far, then they’ll only be sensitive to the cases for which P1 is by far the largest, P2 is by far the largest, or P3 is by far the largest — the regions near the vertices of the triangle.  But we know a number of very reasonable theories with P1=1/2 and P2=P3=1/4 — a point deep inside the triangle.  So the experimenters are not yet looking efficiently for this case.  Peskin is saying that to cover the whole triangle, one has add three more searches, for

  • t’ → W+ b and t‘ → Z t, or t’ → W-  b and t’ → Zt;
  • t’ → W+ b and t‘ → h t, or t‘ → W- b  and t’ → ht;
  • t’ → Zt and t‘ → h t, or t’ → ht or t‘ → Z t;

so as to cover that case (and more generally, the whole triangle) efficiently. Moreover, no one search is very effective; one has to combine them all six searches together.

His logic is quite general.  If you have a particle that decays in four different ways, the same logic applies but for a tetrahedron, and you need ten searches; if two different ways, it’s a line segment, and you need three searches.

Why a Lightweight Higgs is a Sensitive Creature — Part 2

[Note added:  It is official — as expected, at this year’s Chamonix workshop, where the Large Hadron Collider’s [LHC's] future is planned out each year, it was decided that the LHC’s energy will be increased by 14% next year (from 3.5 TeV energy per proton and 7 TeV energy per collision in 2010-2011 to 4 TeV per proton and 8 per collision.) Also the time between collisions will remain at 50 nanoseconds.  I’ll have some things to say about the pros and cons of this decision, in particular the challenges for the experiments, over the next few days.]

On Monday last week, I gave you half the explanation as to why a lightweight Higgs particle is a sensitive creature, one that is easily altered by new phenomena — by particles and/or forces that we might not yet know about.  It all had to do with an analogy between a violin string (or a guitar string or a xylophone key) and the properties of the Higgs particle.   Today, on the same webpage as the first half, I have provided the second half of the story. (If you have already read the first half, just look for the boldface words “The Diverse Modes of a Higgs’ Demise”, which separate last week’s prose from the new stuff.)  I’ve also added, for particle physicists and for those laypersons who want to go a little deeper, a short quantitative discussion of my main points.

Also: I will have the honor to be interviewed on Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern time, at

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtuallyspeaking/2012/02/15/matt-strassler-tom-levenson-virtually-speaking-science

which you can listen to either live or later.  My interviewer, Tom Levenson, is an eminent science journalist who has written fascinating and surprising books on Einstein and on Newton, among others, won awards for his work on television (e.g. NOVA), has a great blog (and also posts here), and is a professor of science writing at MIT.  In short, he’s a bright and interesting dude whom you should consider following on Twitter, or in whatever way floats your boat in the ocean of social media.  For this reason I suspect that the conversation is going to be a lot deeper and more interesting than the average interview, with the interviewer making at least as many interesting comments about the topic as the interviewee.

Why A Lightweight Higgs Particle is a Sensitive Creature — Part 1

In a post from January 27, 2012, concerning the possibility that the Higgs particle might have exotic decays (i.e. decays of a sort not expected if the Higgs is of the “ simplest [i.e. ``Standard Model''] type), I described a lightweight Higgs particle as a sensitive creature.  We might think of it as the canary in the accelerator tunnel, easily affected by new phenomena that we might otherwise overlook at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].  It has the potential to give us our first indication of the existence of new particles and/or forces .

But what makes it so delicate?

The reason that a lightweight Higgs particle is a sensitive creature is this:  it … decays …  slowly …

Slowly??!??  In what sense can one think of a particle that typically disappears in 0.000,000,000,000,000,000,001 seconds — less than the time it takes light to cross from one side of an atom to the other — as durable?!?

Click here to read more.

Exotic Decays of the Higgs: A High Priority for 2012

2012 may well turn out to be The Year of The Higgs.  Right now we have very little knowledge about this particle, but that may change dramatically over the year. As I described in my previous post, we’re coming toward the end of Phase 1 of the Higgs search (where the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] search for the simplest possible form of the Higgs particle, the Standard Model Higgs, or SM Higgs for short.) And we’re also starting up Phase 2 of the Higgs search. As discussed in my Cosmic Variance guest post, and in more detail in my most recent post, if a particle resembling the SM Higgs is found, Phase 2 involves checking its details and determining as well as possible whether it is or isn’t precisely what is predicted by the Standard Model. If no such particle is found, Phase 2 involves searching widely for the many other types of Higgs particles that nature might or might not possess. Fortunately, despite these apparently divergent aims, the two possible branches of Phase 2 involve asking some of the same experimental questions (see Figure 3 of the most recent post), and so we can start on Phase 2 before even finishing Phase 1. And that is happening now.

One of the things that has to be done in Phase 2 is to search for decays of the Higgs particle that are not among the decays predicted to occur in the Standard Model.  [“Decay” = “a disintegration of one particle into two or more”. Click here for an introduction.]  Such “exotic” decays are thought of as particularly plausible, because a lightweight Higgs (below about 150 GeV/c2 or so) is a very sensitive creature. It is very easy for new particles and/or forces to alter the Higgs’ properties, perhaps causing changes in how (or how often) it is produced, and to what (and with what probability) it may decay.  As shown in a large number of papers, written by  quite a variety of particle physics theorists, there are many, many types of possible exotic decays, and they can arise for many reasons.  If you’re curious what kind of exotic decays might occur, I gave a few examples in my now somewhat out-of-date analysis of what the summer’s Higgs searches imply. The basic logic of how unusual Higgs decays might arise is still correct in the cases described, but there are many, many more possibilities too. I’ll have to write a long article about the options in the coming month or so. Continue reading

The Higgs particle decays; so do most particles. Why?

Here’s an article intended to give a layperson a sense for why so many types of particles — most of them, in fact — decay away almost instantly, forcing us to discover them through various types of trickery.   This is relevant in the search for the Higgs particle, which decays away far too quickly to observe directly. (See the Higgs FAQ, the video clips from my recent public talk, or the article about recent hints of the Higgs for more info.)