Tag Archives: press

Did The Universe Really Begin With a Singularity?

Did the universe begin with a singularity?  A point in space and/or a moment in time where everything in the universe was crushed together, infinitely hot and infinitely densely packed?

Doesn’t the Big Bang Theory say so?

Well, let me ask you a question. Did you begin with a singularity?

Let’s see. Some decades ago, you were smaller. And then before that, you were even smaller. At some point you could fit inside your mother’s body, and if we follow time backwards, you were even much smaller than that.

If we follow your growth curve back, it would be very natural — if we didn’t know anything about biology, cells, and human reproduction — to assume that initially you were infinitesimally small… that you were created from a single point!

But that would be wrong. The mistake is obvious — it doesn’t make sense to assume that the period of rapid growth that you went through as a tiny embryo was the simple continuation of a process that extends on and on into the past, back until you were infinitely small.  Instead, there was a point where something changed… the growth began not from a point but from a single object of definite size: a fertilized egg.

The notion that the Universe started with a Big Bang, and that this Big Bang started from a singularity — a point in space and/or a moment in time where the universe was infinitely hot and dense — is not that different, really, from assuming humans begin their lives as infinitely small eggs. It’s about over-extrapolating into the past. Continue reading

Did Hawking Say “There Are No Black Holes”?

Media absurdity has reached new levels of darkness with the announcement that Stephen Hawking has a new theory in which black holes do not exist after all.

No, he doesn’t.

[Note added: click here for my new introduction to the black hole information paradox.]

First, Hawking does not have a new theory… at least not one he’s presented. You can look at his paper here — two pages (pdf), a short commentary that he gave to experts in August 2013 and wrote up as a little document — and you can see it has no equations at all. That means it doesn’t qualify as a theory. “Theory”, in physics, means: a set of equations that can be used to make predictions for physical processes in a real or imaginary world. When we talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity, we’re talking about equations. Compare just the look and feel of Hawking’s recent note to Einstein’s 1905 paper on the theory of special relativity, or to Hawking’s most famous 1975 paper on black holes; you can easily see the difference without understanding the content of the papers.

The word “theory” does not mean “speculations” or “ideas”, which is all that is contained in this little article. Maybe that’s what theory means at a cocktail party, but it’s not what “theory” means in physics.

Second, what Hawking is addressing in this note is the precise level of blackness of a black hole… in short, whether the name “black hole” for the objects we call black holes is really appropriate. But simply the fact that black holes aren’t quite black isn’t new. In fact it was Hawking himself who became famous in 1974-1975 for pointing out that in a world with quantum physics, typical black holes cannot be precisely black — so it’s not true that nothing ever comes out of a black hole. Black holes must slowly radiate elementary particles, a process we call Hawking radiation.

From day 1, Hawking’s observation posed puzzles about how conflicting requirements of quantum theory and Einstein’s gravity would be resolved, with quantum theory demanding that all information that fell into the black hole be neither destroyed nor copied, and Einstein’s gravity insisting that there is no way that the information of what went into a black hole can ever come out again, even if the black hole evaporates and disappears. The assumption of the community has long been that the 1970s calculation that Hawking did, while largely correct, leaves out a small, subtle effect that resolves the puzzle. The question is: what is the nature of that subtle effect?

No one, including Hawking, has posed a satisfactory answer. And that is why we keep hearing about black holes again and again over the decades, most recently in the context of the “firewall paradox”. In his recent paper, Hawking, like many of his colleagues, is proposing another possible answer, though without demonstrating mathematically that his proposal is correct.

But did Hawking really say “There are no black holes”, or didn’t he??

Talk about taking things out of context!!! Here’s what Hawking actually said.

First he suggests that the edge of a black hole — called its “event horizon”, a very subtle concept when you get into the details — really isn’t so sharp once quantum effects are considered. Many people have suggested one version or another of this possibility, which would represent a small but critical correction to what Hawking said in the 1970s (and to what people understood about black holes even earlier).

And then Hawking writes…

“The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes – in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity.”

Notice the final clause, which is omitted from the media reports, and is absolutely necessary to make sense of his remark. What he means is that black holes are very, very slightly (though importantly) less black than he said in his 1974 paper… because the things that fall into the black hole do in some sense eventually come back out as the black hole evaporates. I say “in some sense” because they come out thoroughly scrambled; you, for example, if you fell in, would not come back out, even though some of the elementary particles out of which you are made might eventually do so.

And then he says

“There are however apparent horizons which persist for a period of time.”

Translation: for an extremely long time, what we call a black hole will behave in just the way we have long thought it does. In particular, there is no change in any of the astrophysics of black holes that astronomers have been studying in recent decades. The only issue is what happens as a black hole begins to evaporate in a serious way, and when you look very, very carefully at the details of the Hawking radiation, which is very difficult to do.

“This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field.”

In short: In Hawking’s proposal, it’s not that the objects that you and I would call “black holes” don’t exist!  They are still there, just with a new name, doing what we’ve been taught they do except in some fine-grained detail. Not that this fine-grained detail is unimportant — it’s essential to resolving the quantum vs. gravity puzzle.  But an ordinary person watching or exploring near a black hole would notice no difference.

Notice also all of this is a proposal, made in words; he has not shown this with mathematics.

In short, although Hawking is, with many of his colleagues, working hard to resolve the puzzles that seem to make quantum theory conflict with Einstein’s theory of gravity in this context, he’s not questioning whether black holes exist in the sense that you and I would mean it. He’s addressing the technical issue of exactly how black they are, and how the information contained in the things that fall in comes back out again. And since he’s just got words, but not math, to back up his suggestions, he’s not convinced his colleagues.

Meanwhile, the media takes the five words “There Are No Black Holes” and creates almost pure fiction, fiction that has almost nothing to do with the reality of the science. Well done, media, well done. Sometimes you’re just like a black hole: information comes in, and after being completely scrambled beyond recognition, comes back out again through a mysterious process that makes no sense to anyone. Except that in your case, it’s very clear that information is lost, and misinformation is created.

Hey! That’s a new theory of black holes! (I’ll write a 2-page paper on that this afternoon…)

The Guardian’s Level-Headed Article on Fukushima

[Note: If you missed Wednesday evening's discussion of particle physics involving me, Sean Carroll and Alan Boyle, you can listen to it here.]

I still have a lot of work to do before I can myself write intelligently about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the nuclear accident and cleanup that occurred there. (See here and here for a couple of previous posts about it.) But I did want to draw your attention to one of the better newspaper articles that I’ve seen written about it, by Ian Sample at the Guardian. I can’t vouch for everything that Sample says, but given what I’ve read and investigated myself, I think he finds the right balance. He’s neither scaring people unnecessarily, nor reassuring them that everything will surely be just fine and that there’s no reason to be worried about anything. From what I know and understand, the situation is more or less just as serious and worthy of concern as Sample says it is; but conversely, I don’t have any reason to think it is much worse than what he describes.

Meanwhile, just as I don’t particularly trust anything said by TEPCO, the apparently incompetent and corrupt Japanese power company that runs and is trying to clean up the Fukushima plant, I’m also continuing to see lots of scary articles — totally irresponsible — written by people who should know better but seem bent upon frightening the public. The more wild the misstatements and misleading statements, the better, it seems.

One example of this kind of fear-mongering is to be found here: http://truth-out.org/news/item/19547-fukushima-a-global-threat-that-requires-a-global-response, by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers. It’s one piece of junk after the next: the strategy is to take a fact, take another unrelated fact, quote a non-expert (or quote an expert out of context), stick them all together, and wow! frightening!! But here’s the thing: An experienced and attentive reader will know, after a few paragraphs, to ignore this article. Why?

Because it never puts anything in context. “When contact with radioactive cesium occurs, which is highly unlikely, a person can experience cell damage due to radiation of the cesium particles. Due to this, effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding may occur. When the exposure lasts a long time, people may even lose consciousness. Coma or even death may then follow. How serious the effects are depends upon the resistance of individual persons and the duration of exposure and the concentration a person is exposed to, experts say.” Well, how much cesium are we talking about here? Lots or a little? Ah, they don’t tell you that. [The answer: enormous amounts. There's no chance of you getting anywhere near that amount of exposure unless you yourself go wandering around on the Fukushima grounds, and go some place you're really not supposed to go. This didn't even happened to the workers who were at the Fukushima plant when everything was at its worst in March 2011. Even if you ate a fish every week from just off Japan that had a small amount of cesium in it, this would not happen to you.]

Because it makes illogical statements. “Since the accident at Fukushima on March 11, 2011, three reactor cores have gone missing.” Really? Gone missing? Does that make sense? Well then, why is so much radioactive cooling water — which is mentioned later in the article — being stored up at the Fukushima site? Isn’t that water being used to keep those cores cool? And how could that happen if the cores were missing? [The cores melted; it's not known precisely what shape they are in or precisely how much of each is inside or outside the original containment vessel, but they're being successfully cooled by water, so it's clear roughly where they are. They're not "missing"; that's a wild over-statement.]

Because the authors quote people without being careful to explain clearly who they are. “Harvey Wasserman, who has been working on nuclear energy issues for over 40 years,…” Is Harvey Wasserman a scientist or engineer? No.  But he gets lots of press in this article (and elsewhere.) [Wikipedia says: "Harvey Franklin Wasserman (born December 31, 1945) is an American journalist, author, democracy activist, and advocate for renewable energy. He has been a strategist and organizer in the anti-nuclear movement in the United States for over 30 years." I have nothing against Mr. Wasserman and I personally support both renewable energy and the elimination of nuclear power. But as far as I know, Wasserman has no scientific training, and is not an expert on cleaning up a nuclear plant and the risks thereof... and he's an anti-nuclear activist, so you do have to worry he's going to make thing sound worse than they are. Always look up the people being quoted!]

Because the article never once provides balance or nuance: absolutely everything is awful, awful, awful. I’m sorry, but things are never that black and white, or rather, black and black. There are shades of gray in the real world, and it’s important to tease them out a little bit. There are eventualities that would be really terrible, others that would be unfortunate, still others that would merely be a little disruptive in the local area — and they’re not equally bad, nor are they equally likely. [I don't get any sense that the authors are trying to help their readers understand; they're just bashing the reader over the head with one terrifying-sounding thing after another. This kind of article just isn't credible.]

The lesson: one has to be a critical, careful reader, and read between the lines! In contrast to Sample’s article in the Guardian, the document by Zeese and Flowers is not intended to inform; it is intended to frighten, period. I urge you to avoid getting your information from sources like that one. Find reliable, sensible people — Ian Sample is in that category, I think — and stick with them. And I would ignore anything Zeese and Flowers have to say in the future; people who’d write an article like theirs have no credibility.

The Murky NY Times Op Ed on Dark Matter

Appropriate for General Readership

[Apologies: due to a computer glitch, the figure in the original version of this post was not the most up-to-date, and had typos, now fixed.]

On Tuesday, the New York Times Editorial page ran an Op-Ed about dark matter... and although it could have been worse, it could certainly have been better.  I do wonder why these folks don't just call up an expert and confirm that they've actually got it right, before they mislead the public and give scientists a combination of a few giggles and a headache.

Here is the last paragraph from the Times:

"This experiment is probing a major hole in the way we understand the cosmos. Roughly speaking, the force of gravity in the universe can be explained only by a corresponding amount of mass, or matter. Some undiscovered mass — dark matter — must exist in order to explain gravity, but no one has seen any traces of it. Those traces, when they are finally found, will be exotic particles left over from the Big Bang. In the tale we tell about everything we know, scientists have now brought us to the edge of the deep, dark woods. They, and we, are waiting eagerly to see how the rest of the story goes."

Ok, out comes the professorial red pen.

First, a relatively minor point of order. "...the force of gravity in the universe can be explained only by a corresponding amount of mass, or matter..." This isn't great writing, because mass and matter are not the same thing. Matter is a type of substance. Mass is a property that substance (including ordinary matter, such as tables and planets) can have. Mass and matter are as different as apples and applets. You can read about these distinctions here, if you like. The author is trying to evade this distinction to keep things simple: the more correct statement is that gravity (in simple circumstances) is a force exerted by things (including ordinary matter) that have mass.

But here's the real offending remark: "Some undiscovered mass — dark matter — must exist in order to explain gravity, but no one has seen any traces of it." Dark matter is most certainly not needed to ``explain gravity'' in some general way; there's not one bit of truth in that remark. For instance, the gravitational pull of the sun on the earth (and vice versa), and the pull of the earth on you and me (and vice versa), has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with dark matter, nor is dark matter needed to explain it.

What the author should have said is: since the 1960s we have known that gravitational forces on large astronomical scales seem to be stronger than we can account for, and so either our equations for gravity are wrong or there is matter out there, pulling on things gravitationally, that we cannot see with any type of telescope.  The reason the latter possibility is taken more seriously than the former by most experts is that attempts to modify gravity have not led to a convincing case, while the evidence for additional ``dark'' matter has grown very strong over recent decades.

Here's one of the several arguments that suggest the possibility of dark matter... the simplest to explain. Experts study the motions of the stars in our own galaxy --- the star city known as the Milky Way --- and also study the motions of stars in other galaxies. [The overall motions of galaxies themselves, inside giant clusters of galaxies which can be found in deep space, are also studied.] Now what we ask is this; see Figure 1. Supposing all of the matter that is out there in the universe is of a type that we can see in one way or another: stars, gas, dust of various types. Then we can figure out, just by looking with a telescope and doing simple calculations, roughly how much measurable matter is in each galaxy, how much mass that matter has, and where it is distributed inside the galaxy.  We can next use that information to figure out how hard that matter pulls on other matter, via the force of gravity. And finally --- crucially! --- we can calculate how fast that pull will make the matter move, on average.  And what do we find when we measure how fast the stars are moving? Our calculations based on the matter that we can see are wrong. We find that the stars in the outer edges of a galaxy, and the galaxies inside clusters, are moving much, much faster than our calculation predicts. (This was discovered in the 1960s by Vera Rubin and Kent Ford.)  It's as though they're being pulled on by something unseen --- as though the gravity on the stars due to the rest of the galaxy is stronger than we've guessed. Why is this happening?

Fig. 1:

Fig. 1: One of several lines of evidence in favor of the hypothesis of dark matter is that stars in the outer regions of galaxies move much faster than would be the case if the galaxy was made only from what we can see.

One possibility is that there is matter out there that we can't see, a lot of it, and that matter is inside galaxies and inside clusters of galaxies, exerting a pull that we haven't accounted for properly. A huge "halo" of dark matter, in this view, surrounds every galaxy (Figure 2).

Clearly, this isn't the only logical possibility. Another option is that there could be something wrong with our understanding of gravity. Or there could be some other new force that we don't know about yet that has nothing to do with gravity. Or maybe there's something wrong with the very laws of motion that we use. But all attempts to make sensible suggestions along these lines have gradually run into conflicts with astronomical observations over the recent decades.

Fig. 2:  The visible part of every galaxy is believed to lie roughly at the center of a much larger halo of dark matter.

Fig. 2: The visible part of every galaxy is believed to lie roughly at the center of a much larger halo of dark matter.

Meanwhile, during those last few decades, a simple version of the "dark matter" hypothesis has passed test after test, some of these tests being very complex and subtle. For example, in Einstein's theory of gravity, gravity pulls on light, and can bend it much the same way that the lenses in eyeglasses bend light. A galaxy or galaxy cluster can serve to magnify objects behind it, and by studying these lensing effects, we again conclude there's far more matter in galaxies and in clusters than we can see.  And there are other arguments too, which I won't cover now.

So while an explanation for the fast motion of stars inside galaxies, and galaxies inside clusters, isn't 100% sure to be dark matter, it's now, after many years of study, in the high 90%s. Don't let anyone tell you that scientists rushed to judgment about this; it has been studied for decades, and I can tell you from experience that there's a lot more consensus now than there was when I was an beginning undergraduate 30 years ago.

"Those traces, when they are finally found, will be exotic particles left over from the Big Bang." Will they? Will the dark matter turn out to be particles from the Big Bang? Not necessarily. We know that's one possibility, but it's not the only one. Since I explained this point last week, I'll just refer you to that post.

Now here come the big meta-questions: should the New York Times be more careful about what it puts on its editorial page? Should its editors, who are not scientists, talk broadly about a subtle scientific topic without fact-checking with an expert? What are the costs and benefits when they put out oversimplified, and in some ways actually false, information about science on their editorial page?

Why Scientists Can Be Happy Even When They Find Nothing

Appropriate for General Readership

Last week, the LUX experiment reported its results in its search for the dark matter that (speaking roughly) makes up 25% of the stuff in the universe (see here for the first report and here for some Q&A).  [See this article, specifically the "Dark Matter Underfoot" section, for some nontechnical discussion about how experiments like LUX work.]  Shortly thereafter, a number of articles in the media made a big deal out of the fact that, simultaneously,

  1. the LUX experiment did not find evidence of dark matter
  2. yet scientists at the LUX experiment appeared to be quite happy

as though this was contradictory and mystifying. Actually, if you think about it carefully, this is perfectly normal and typical, and not the slightest bit surprising. But to make sense of it, you do also have to understand the levels of ``happiness'' that the LUX scientists are expressing.

The point is that whenever scientists do an experiment whose goal is to look for something whose precise details aren't known, there are two stories running simultaneously:

  1. The scientists are trying to do the best experiment that they can, in order that their search be as thorough and as expansive as it could possibly be with the equipment that they have available.
  2. The scientists are hoping that the thing that they are looking for (or perhaps something else equally or more interesting) will be within reach of their search.

Notice that humans have control over the first story. The wiser they are at designing their experiment, and the more skillful they are in carrying it out, the more effective their search will be. But they have no control over the second story. Whether their prey lies within their reach, or whether it lies far beyond, requiring the technology of the distant future, is up to nature, not humans. In short, story #1 is about skill and talent, but story #2 is about luck. Even a great experiment can't do the impossible, and even one that doesn't work quite as well as it was supposed to can be fortunate.

Of course, there is some interplay between the stories. A disaster in story #1 precludes a happy ending in story #2; if the experiment doesn't work, there won't be any discoveries! And the better is the outcome in story #1, the more probable is a success in story #2; a more thorough search is more likely to get lucky.

The LUX researchers, in order to make a discovery, have to be lucky in several ways, as I described on Thursday.

  • Dark matter (at least some of it) has to be made from particles which are heavier than protons and have uniform properties;
  • These particles have to be rather smoothly distributed through the Milky Way galaxy, rather than bound up in clumps the way ordinary matter is, so that some of them are likely, just by chance, to be passing through the earth;
  • And they have to interact with ordinary matter at a rate that is not insanely small --- no less than a millionth of the interaction rate of high-energy neutrinos with ordinary matter.

None of these things is necessarily true, given what we know about dark matter from our measurements of the heavens. And if any one of them is false, no detector similar to LUX will ever find dark matter; we'll need other methods, some of which are already under way.

Now, in this context, what's the worst thing that could happen to a group of scientists who've built an experiment? The worst thing that could happen is that after spending several years preparing the experiment, they find it simply doesn't work. This can happen! These are very difficult experiments requiring very special and remarkable techniques, and every now and then, in the history of such experiments, an unexpected problem arises that can't be solved without a complete redesign, which is usually too expensive and in any case means years of delay. Or something just explodes and ruins the experiment. Something like this is extremely depressing and often deeply embarrassing.

So if instead the experiment works, the scientists who designed, built and ran it are of course very relieved and reasonably happy. And if, because of a combination of hard work and cleverness, it works better than they expected and as well as they could have hoped, they're of course enormously pleased, and proud of their work!

Now what could make them happier still --- even ecstatic, to the point of staying up late drinking entire bottles of champagne? A discovery, of course. Discovering what they're looking for, or perhaps something they weren't even looking for, if it is truly novel and of fundamental importance.  If that happens, then they won't care as much if their experiment worked better than expected... because, if you're an experimental scientist, there's nothing, nothing at all, better than discovering something new about nature.

So with this perspective, I think the LUX scientists' emotions (as conveyed during his talk by Richard Gaitskell of Brown University, the project's leader) are actually very easy to understand. They are very happy because their experiment works better than they expected and as well as they hoped... maybe even better than that. For this, they get the high respect and admiration of their colleagues. But make no mistake: they'd certainly be a lot happier --- overjoyed and humbled --- if they'd discovered dark matter. For that, they'd get a place in the history books, major prizes (perhaps a Nobel, if the Nobel Committee could figure out who to give it to), lasting fame, and the almost unimaginable feeling of having uncovered something about nature that no human previously knew, and that (barring a complete collapse of civilization) will never be forgotten. So yes, they're happy. But not nearly as happy as can be. They're frustrated, too, just like the rest of us, that nothing's shown up yet.

However, they're also hopeful. Since they've built such a good experiment, and since they've only run it for such a short time so far, they'll have another very reasonable shot at finding dark matter when they run it for about a full year, in 2014. Not only will they run it longer, they'll surely also learn, from their experience so far, to be smarter about how they run it. So expect, at the very least, powerful new limits on dark matter from them in eighteen months or so. And maybe, just maybe, something more.

Questions and Answers About Dark Matter post-LUX

Since the mainstream news media, in their reporting on the new result from the LUX experiment I wrote about Wednesday, insists on confusing the public with their articles and headlines, I thought I’d better write a short post reminding my readers what we do and don’t know about dark matter.

  • Do we know dark matter exists?

Scientists are, collectively, pretty darn sure, though not 100% certain. Certainly something is out there that acts a lot like a dark form of matter (i.e. something that gravitates and clumps, but doesn’t shine, either in visible light or in any other form of electromagnetic waves). There have been some proposals that try to get around dark matter, by modifying gravity, but these haven’t worked that well. Meanwhile the evidence that there really is dark stuff out there that really behaves like matter continues to grow year by year, and every claim that it actually isn’t there (such as this one I wrote about – see the second half of the article) has turned out to be wrong.  Dark matter is needed to explain features of the cosmic microwave background, to explain how galaxies form, to explain why we see certain types of gravitational lensing, etc. etc.  No one alternative can explain all of these things.  And dark matter easily arises in many particle physics theories, so it’s not hard to imagine it might be created in the early universe and be a dominant player today.

  • Do we know dark matter is made from particles (i.e. ultra-microscopic objects with uniform properties)?

No, that’s not certain. Particles would do the job, but that’s not a proof it is made from particles.

  • If dark matter is made from particles, do we know these are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) — to be precise, particles that interact with the Standard Model via the weak nuclear force or the Higgs force or something else we already know about?

No. Dark matter could be WIMPs. Or dark matter could be made from a very different type of particle called “axions”. Or dark matter could be made from particles that aren’t of either of these types.  This could include particles that only interact with ordinary matter through the force of gravity, which could make them very, very hard to detect.

  • Do most scientists believe dark matter is made from WIMPs? (This was claimed to be true in several news articles.)

As far as I can tell, most experts do not know what to think; some have a bias toward one idea or another, but when pressed admit there’s no way to know. Many scientists think WIMPs are a good candidate, but I’ve never heard anyone say they are the only one.

Partly because they can. Sometimes science involves looking under the lamppost for your keys. You look where you can because you can look there, and you may get lucky — it has happened many times before in history.   That’s fine as long as you remember that’s what you are doing.

Not that WIMPs are the only things that people are looking for. They can also look for axions, and there are experiments doing that search too. Looking for other types of dark matter particles directly is sometimes very difficult. Some of these other types of particles could be found by the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] (and people are looking.) Others could be found by experiments such as FERMI and AMS, through the effect of dark matter annihilation to known particles (and people are looking; there’s even a hint, not yet shown to be wrong). Still other possible types of dark matter particles are completely inaccessible to modern experiments, and may remain so for a long time to come.

  • If we don’t know dark matter is particles, or that those particles are WIMPs, then why do the headlines say “dark matter search in final phase” in reference to the new result from LUX, even though LUX is mainly only looking for WIMPs?

Don’t ask me. Ask the editors at CBS and the BBC why their headlines about science are so often inaccurate.

The search for dark matter will end when some type of dark matter is found (or somehow shown convincingly not to exist), not before. The former could happen any day; the latter will not happen anytime soon.  The only thing that is currently approaching its end is the search for WIMPs as the dark matter (and even that search will not, unfortunately, end as soon or as conclusively as we would like.) If WIMPs aren’t found, that just probably means that dark matter is something else on the list I gave you above: some other type of particle, or some other type of thing that isn’t a particle. Or it could mean that dark matter forms clumps, rather than being smoothly distributed through our galaxy, and that we’re unlucky enough to be in an empty zone.  Certainly, if LUX and XENON1T and the other current experiments don’t find anything, we will not be able conclude that dark matter doesn’t exist. Only those who don’t understand the science will attempt to draw that conclusion.

  • So why is the LUX experiment’s result so important?

Well, it’s important, but not amazingly important, because indeed, (a) they didn’t find anything, and (b) it’s not like they ruled out a whole class of possibilities (e.g. WIMPs) all at once. But still, (i) they did rule out a possibility that several other experiments were hinting at, and that’s important, because it settles an outstanding scientific issue,  and (ii) their experiment works very, very well, which is also important, because it means they have a better chance at a discovery in their next round of measurements than they would have otherwise. In short: they deserve and will get a lot of praise and admiration for their work… but their result, unlike the discover of the Higgs particle by the LHC experiments, isn’t Nobel Prize-worthy. And indeed, it’s not getting a front-page spread in the New York Times, for good reason.

Some Weird Twists and Turns

In my last post, I promised you some comments on a couple of other news stories you may have seen.  Promise kept! see below.

But before I go there, I should mention (after questions from readers) an important distinction.  Wednesday’s post was about the simple process by which a Bs meson (a hadron containing a bottom quark and a down[typo] strange anti-quark, or vice versa, along with the usual crowd of gluons and quark/antiquark pairs) decays to a muon and an anti-muon.  The data currently shows nothing out of the ordinary there.  This is not to be confused with another story, loosely related but with crucially different details. There are some apparent discrepancies (as much as 3.7 standard deviations, but only 2.8 after accounting for the look-elsewhere effect) cropping up in details of the intricate process by which a Bd meson (a hadron containing a bottom quark and a down antiquark, or vice versa, plus the usual crowd) decays to a muon, an anti-muon, and a spin-one Kaon (a hadron containing a strange quark and a down anti-quark, or vice versa, plus the usual crowd). The measurements made by the LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider disagree, in some but not all features, with the (technically difficult) predictions made using the Standard Model (the equations used to describe the known particles and forces.)

Don't confuse these two processes!  (Top) The process B_s --> muon + anti-muon, covered in Wednesday's post, agrees with Standard Model predictions.   (Bottom) The process B_d --> muon + anti-muon + K* is claimed to deviate by nearly 3 standard deviations from the Standard Model, but (as far as I am aware) the prediction and associated claim has not yet been verified by multiple groups of people, nor has the measurement been repeated.

Don’t confuse these two processes! (Top) The process B_s –> muon + anti-muon, covered in Wednesday’s post, agrees with Standard Model predictions. (Bottom) The process B_d –> muon + anti-muon + K* is claimed to deviate by nearly 3 standard deviations from the Standard Model, but (as far as I am aware) the prediction and associated claim has not yet been verified by multiple groups of people, nor has the measurement been repeated.

A few theorists have even gone so far as to claim this discrepancy is clearly a new phenomenon — the end of the Standard Model’s hegemony — and have gotten some press people to write (very poorly and inaccurately) about their claim.  Well, aside from the fact that every year we see several 3 standard deviation discrepancies turn out to be nothing, let’s remember to be cautious when a few scientists try to convince journalists before they’ve convinced their colleagues… (remember this example that went nowhere? …) And in this case we have them serving as judge and jury as well as press office: these same theorists did the calculation which disagrees with the data.  So maybe the Standard Model is wrong, or maybe their calculation is wrong.  In any case, you certainly musn’t believe the news article as currently written, because it has so many misleading statements and overstatements as to be completely beyond repair. [For one thing, it's a case study in how to misuse the word "prove".] I’ll try to get you the real story, but I have to study the data and the various Standard Model predictions more carefully first before I can do that with complete confidence.

Ok, back to the promised comments: on twists and turns for neutrinos and for muons…   Continue reading

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