This has been an exceptional few days, and I’ve had no time to breathe, much less blog. In pre-covid days, visits to the laboratories at CERN or Fermilab were always jam-packed with meetings, both planned and spontaneous, and with professional talks by experts visiting the labs. But many things changed during the pandemic. The vitality of labs like Fermilab and CERN depends on their many visitors, and so it is going to take time for them to recover from the isolation and work-from-home culture that covid-19 imposed on them.
My visit, organized by the LHC Physics Center [LPC], the US organizing center for the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], is my first trip to Fermilab since before 2020. I feared finding a skeleton crew, with many people working from home, and far fewer people traveling to Fermilab from other institutions. There is some truth in it; the place is a quieter than it was pre-2020. But nevertheless, the quality of the Fermilab staff and the visitors passing through has not declined. It is fair to say that in every meeting I’ve had and every presentation I have attended — and yesterday I started at 7:30 and ended at 4 without a single break — I have learned something new and important.
Today I’ll just give you a flavor of what I’ve learned; each one of these topics deserves a blog post all its own.
- One Fermilab postdoc explained a new and very powerful technique for looking for long-lived particles at CMS, using parts of the CMS detector in a novel, creative way. Because it’s possible that the Higgs boson (or top quark, Z boson, W boson, bottom quark, or some unknown particle) can sometimes decay to a long-lived particle, which travels a macroscopic distance before decaying to a spray of other particles, this is an important scientific target. It’s one the existing LHC experiments weren’t really designed to study, but with a wide range of creative developments, they’ve developed an impressive range of techniques for doing so.
- Another has a strategy for looking for certain decays of the Higgs boson that would be extremely difficult to find using standard techniques. Specifically, decays in which only hadrons are produced are very difficult to observe; hadrons are so abundant in collisions at the LHC that this is a signal drowned in background. But there is a possible way around this if the Higgs boson is kicked hard enough sideways in the collision.
- A third is digging very deep into the challenging subject of low-energy muons and electrons. Particles with energy below 5 GeV become increasingly difficult to observe, for a whole host of reasons. But again, there can be decays of the Higgs boson (or other known particles) which would predominantly show themselves in these low-energy, difficult-to-identify muons or electrons. So this is a frontier where new ground needs to be broken.
- A visiting expert taught me more about the technical meaning of “intrinsic charm”, which was widely over-reported as meaning that “there are charm quarks in the proton”. Understanding precisely what this means is quite subtle, even for a theoretical physics expert, and I’m still not in a position where I can explain it to you properly — though I did discuss it a closely related issue carefully. Moreover, he questions whether the story is actually correct — it depends on a claim of statistical errors being small enough, but he has doubts, and some evidence to support his doubts. (The same doubts, incidentally, potentially affect whether the difference of the W boson from the Standard Model prediction is really as significant as has been claimed.) In my opinion, it is not yet certain that there really is “intrinsic” charm in the proton. You can definitely expect another blog post about this!
- Another visiting expert pointed out that in some limited but interesting cases, there could be very slowly-moving particles captured not only in the core of the Earth but also floating near its surface, a possible target for underground experiments that are sensitive to extremely low energy collisions of unknown particles with atoms.
- Then there are the applications of machine learning in particle physics, which are increasingly being used in the complex environment of the LHC to make certain basic techniques of particle physics much more efficient. I heard about several very different examples, at least one of which (involving the identification of jets from bottom quarks) has already proven particularly successful.
- A visiting CMS experimentalist pointed out to me that in a search through LHC data that she’d been involved in for many years, there are two surprising collisions observed with an extraordinary amount of energy, and very unusual (but similar) characteristics. It’s hard to quantify how unusual they are, but hopefully we will soon hear about a similar search at ATLAS, which could add or subtract weight from this observation. In any case, upcoming data from Run 3 will give us enough information, within a year or two, to see if this hint is actually of something real.
- If these events aren’t a fluke and represent something real and new, then one of the local theorists at Fermilab is the fellow to talk to; back in 2018, when only one of these events had been observed, he and a couple of others thought through what the options are to explain where it might have come from. The options are unusual and would certainly be surprising to most theorists, but he convinced me that they’re not inconsistent with theoretical reasoning or with other data, so we should keep an open mind.
- Yet another visiting theorist taught me about the possibility of non-linearities in quantum physics. Steven Weinberg tried to consider this possibility some time ago, but it turned out his approach violated causality; but now, inspired by old ideas of Joe Polchinski, there’s a new proposal to try this in another way. I’m grateful for that 45 minute conversation, at the end of which I felt pretty confident that I understood how the idea works. Now I can go off and think about it. When I understand its implications in some very simple settings (the only way I ever deeply understand anything), I’ll explain it to you.
- Oh, and on top of this, I gave a talk on Tuesday, about powerful and sweeping strategies for searches in LHC data that haven’t yet been done, but ought to be, in my opinion. My ideas about this are 10-15 years old, but I have stronger arguments now that rely on Open Data. That of course led to a variety of follow-up conversations.
The visit’s not over; I’ve got one more day to try to drink from this fire-hose.