Category Archives: Particle Physics

Has a New Force of Nature Been Discovered?

There have been dramatic articles in the news media suggesting that a Nobel Prize has essentially already been awarded for the amazing discovery of a “fifth force.” I thought I’d better throw some cold water on that fire; it’s fine for it to smoulder, but we shouldn’t let it overheat.

There could certainly be as-yet unknown forces waiting to be discovered — dozens of them, perhaps.   So far, there are four well-studied forces: gravity, electricity/magnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force.  Moreover, scientists are already fully confident there is a fifth force, predicted but not yet measured, that is generated by the Higgs field. So the current story would really be about a sixth force.

Roughly speaking, any new force comes with at least one new particle.  That’s because

  • every force arises from a type of field (for instance, the electric force comes from the electromagnetic field, and the predicted Higgs force comes from the Higgs field)
  • and ripples in that type of field are a type of particle (for instance, a minimal ripple in the electromagnetic field is a photon — a particle of light — and a minimal ripple in the Higgs field is the particle known as the Higgs boson.)

The current excitement, such as it is, arises because someone claims to have evidence for a new particle, whose properties would imply a previously unknown force exists in nature.  The force itself has not been looked for, much less discovered.

The new particle, if it really exists, would have a rest mass about 34 times larger than that of an electron — about 1/50th of a proton’s rest mass. In technical terms that means its E=mc² energy is about 17 million electron volts (MeV), and that’s why physicists are referring to it as the X17.  But the question is whether the two experiments that find evidence for it are correct.

In the first experiment, whose results appeared in 2015, an experimental team mainly based in Debrecen, Hungary studied large numbers of nuclei of beryllium-8 atoms, which had been raised to an “excited state” (that is, with more energy than usual).  An excited nucleus inevitably disintegrates, and the experimenters studied the debris.  On rare occasions they observed electrons and positrons [a.k.a. anti-electrons], and these behaved in a surprising way, as though they were produced in the decay of a previously unknown particle.

In the newly reported experiment, whose results just appeared, the same team observed  the disintegration of excited nuclei of helium.  They again found evidence for what they hope is the X17, and therefore claim confirmation of their original experiments on beryllium.

When two qualitatively different experiments claim the same thing, they are less likely to be wrong, because it’s not likely that any mistakes in the two experiments would create fake evidence of the same type.  On the face of it, it does seem unlikely that both measurements, carried out on two different nuclei, could fake an X17 particle.

However, we should remain cautious, because both experiments were carried out by the same scientists. They, of course, are hoping for their Nobel Prize (which, if their experiments are correct, they will surely win) and it’s possible they could suffer from unconscious bias. It’s very common for individual scientists to see what they want to see; scientists are human, and hidden biases can lead even the best scientists astray.  Only collectively, through the process of checking, reproducing, and using each other’s work, do scientists create trustworthy knowledge.

So it is prudent to await efforts by other groups of experimenters to search for this proposed X17 particle.  If the X17 is observed by other experiments, then we’ll become confident that it’s real. But we probably won’t know until then.  I don’t currently know whether the wait will be months or a few years.

Why I am so skeptical? There are two distinct reasons.

First, there’s a conceptual, mathematical issue. It’s not easy to construct reasonable equations that allow the X17 to co-exist with all of the known types of elementary particles. That it has a smaller mass than a proton is not a problem per se.  But the X17 needs to have some unique and odd properties in order to (1)  be seen in these experiments, yet (2) not be seen in certain other previous experiments, some of which were explicitly looking for something similar.   To make equations that are consistent with these properties requires some complicated and not entirely plausible trickery.  Is it impossible? No.  But a number of the methods that scientists suggested were flawed, and the ones that remain are, to my eye, a bit contrived.

Of course, physics is an experimental science, and what theorists like me think doesn’t, in the end, matter.  If the experiments are confirmed, theorists will accept the facts and try to understand why something that seems so strange might be true.  But we’ve learned an enormous amount from mathematical thinking about nature in the last century — for instance, it was math that told us that the Higgs particle couldn’t be heavier than 1000 protons, and it was on the basis of that `advice’ that the Large Hadron Collider was built to look for it (and it found it, in 2012.) Similar math led to the discoveries of the W and Z particles roughly where they were expected. So when the math tells you the X17 story doesn’t look good, it’s not reason enough for giving up, but it is reason for some pessimism.

Second, there are many cautionary tales in experimental physics. For instance, back in 2003 there were claims of evidence of a particle called a pentaquark with a rest mass about 1.6 times a proton’s mass — an exotic particle, made from quarks and gluons, that’s both like and unlike a proton.  Its existence was confirmed by multiple experimental groups!  Others, however, didn’t see it. It took several years for the community to come to the conclusion that this pentaquark, which looked quite promising initially, did not in fact exist.

The point is that mistakes do get made in particle hunts, sometimes in multiple experiments, and it can take some time to track them down. It’s far too early to talk about Nobel Prizes.

[Note that the Higgs boson’s discovery was accepted more quickly than most.  It was discovered simultaneously by two distinct experiments using two methods each, and confirmed by additional methods and in larger data sets soon thereafter.  Furthermore,  there were already straightforward equations that happily accommodated it, so it was much more plausible than the X17.] 

And just for fun, here’s a third reason I’m skeptical. It has to do with the number 17. I mean, come on, guys, seriously — 17 million electron volts? This just isn’t auspicious.  Back when I was a student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a set of experiments, by a well-regarded experimentalist, which showed considerable evidence for an additional neutrino with a E=mc² energy of 17 thousand electron volts. Other experiments tried to find it, but couldn’t. Yet no one could find a mistake in the experimenter’s apparatus or technique, and he had good arguments that the competing experiments had their own problems. Well, after several years, the original experimenter discovered that there was a piece of his equipment which unexpectedly could absorb about 17 keV of energy, faking a neutrino signal. It was a very subtle problem, and most people didn’t fault him since no one else had thought of it either. But that was the end of the 17 keV neutrino, and with it went hundreds of research papers by both experimental and theoretical physicists, along with one scientist’s dreams of a place in history.

In short, history is cruel to most scientists who claim important discoveries, and teaches us to be skeptical and patient. If there is a fifth sixth force, we’ll know within a few years. Don’t expect to be sure anytime soon. The knowledge cycle in science runs much, much slower than the twittery news cycle, and that’s no accident; if you want to avoid serious errors that could confuse you for a long time to come, don’t rush to judgment.

The New York Times Remembers A Great Physicist

The untimely and sudden deaths of Steve Gubser and Ann Nelson, two of the United States’ greatest talents in the theoretical physics of particles, fields and strings, has cast a pall over my summer and that of many of my colleagues.

I have not been finding it easy to write a proper memorial post for Ann, who was by turns my teacher, mentor, co-author, and faculty colleague.  I would hope to convey to those who never met her what an extraordinary scientist and person she was, but my spotty memory banks aren’t helping. Eventually I’ll get it done, I’m sure.

(Meanwhile I am afraid I cannot write something similar for Steve, as I really didn’t know him all that well. I hope someone who knew him better will write about his astonishing capabilities and his unique personality, and I’d be more than happy to link to it from here.)

In this context, I’m gratified to see that the New York Times has given Ann a substantive obituary, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/26/science/ann-nelson-dies.html, and appearing in the August 28th print edition, I’m told. It contains a striking (but, to those of us who knew her, not surprising) quotation from Howard Georgi.  Georgi is a professor at Harvard who is justifiably famous as the co-inventor, with Nobel-winner Sheldon Glashow, of Grand Unified Theories (in which the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear force all emerge from a single force.) He describes Ann, his former student, as being able to best him at his own game.

  • “I have had many fabulous students who are better than I am at many things. Ann was the only student I ever had who was better than I am at what I do best, and I learned more from her than she learned from me.”

He’s being a little modest, perhaps. But not much. There’s no question that Ann was an all-star.

And for that reason, I do have to complain about one thing in the Times obituary. It says “Dr. Nelson stood out in the world of physics not only because she was a woman, but also because of her brilliance.”

Really, NYTimes, really?!?

Any scientist who knew Ann would have said this instead: that Professor Nelson stood out in the world of physics for exceptional brilliance — lightning-fast, sharp, creative and careful, in the same league as humanity’s finest thinkers — and for remarkable character — kind, thoughtful, even-keeled, rigorous, funny, quirky, dogged, supportive, generous. Like most of us, Professor Nelson had a gender, too, which was female. There are dozens of female theoretical physicists in the United States; they are a too-small minority, but they aren’t rare. By contrast, a physicist and person like Ann Nelson, of any gender? They are extremely few in number across the entire planet, and they certainly do stand out.

But with that off my chest, I have no other complaints. (Well, admittedly the physics in the obit is rather garbled, but we can get that straight another time.) Mainly I am grateful that the Times gave Ann fitting public recognition, something that she did not actively seek in life. Her death is an enormous loss for theoretical physics, for many theoretical physicists, and of course for many other people. I join all my colleagues in extending my condolences to her husband, our friend and colleague David B. Kaplan, and to the rest of her family.

A Catastrophic Weekend for Theoretical High Energy Physics

It is beyond belief that not only am I again writing a post about the premature death of a colleague whom I have known for decades, but that I am doing it about two of them.

Over the past weekend, two of the world’s most influential and brilliant theoretical high-energy physicists — Steve Gubser of Princeton University and Ann Nelson of the University of Washington — fell to their deaths in separate mountain accidents, one in the Alps and one in the Cascades.

Theoretical high energy physics is a small community, and within the United States itself the community is tiny.  Ann and Steve were both justifiably famous and highly respected as exceptionally bright lights in their areas of research. Even for those who had not met them personally, this is a stunning and irreplaceable loss of talent and of knowledge.

But most of us did know them personally.  For me, and for others with a personal connection to them, the news is devastating and tragic. I encountered Steve when he was a student and I was a postdoc in the Princeton area, and later helped bring him into a social group where he met his future wife (a great scientist in her own right, and a friend of mine going back decades).  As for Ann, she was one of my teachers at Stanford in graduate school, then my senior colleague on four long scientific papers, and then my colleague (along with her husband David B. Kaplan) for five years at the University of Washington, where she had the office next to mine. I cannot express what a privilege it always was to work with her, learn from her, and laugh with her.

I don’t have the heart or energy right now to write more about this, but I will try to do so at a later time. Right now I join their spouses and families, and my colleagues, in mourning.

LHCb experiment finds another case of CP violation in nature

The LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider is dedicated mainly to the study of mesons [objects made from a quark of one type, an anti-quark of another type, plus many other particles] that contain bottom quarks (hence the `b’ in the name).  But it also can be used to study many other things, including mesons containing charm quarks.

By examining large numbers of mesons that contain a charm quark and an up anti-quark (or a charm anti-quark and an up quark) and studying carefully how they decay, the LHCb experimenters have discovered a new example of violations of the transformations known as CP (C: exchange of particle with anti-particle; P: reflection of the world in a mirror), of the sort that have been previously seen in mesons containing strange quarks and mesons containing bottom quarks.  Here’s the press release.

Congratulations to LHCb!  This important addition to our basic knowledge is consistent with expectations; CP violation of roughly this size is predicted by the formulas that make up the Standard Model of Particle Physics.  However, our predictions are very rough in this context; it is sometimes difficult to make accurate calculations when the strong nuclear force, which holds mesons (as well as protons and neutrons) together, is involved.  So this is a real coup for LHCb, but not a game-changer for particle physics.  Perhaps, sometime in the future, theorists will learn how to make predictions as precise as LHCb’s measurement!

The Importance and Challenges of “Open Data” at the Large Hadron Collider

A little while back I wrote a short post about some research that some colleagues and I did using “open data” from the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. We used data made public by the CMS experimental collaboration — about 1% of their current data — to search for a new particle, using a couple of twists (as proposed over 10 years ago) on a standard technique.  (CMS is one of the two general-purpose particle detectors at the LHC; the other is called ATLAS.)  We had two motivations: (1) Even if we didn’t find a new particle, we wanted to prove that our search method was effective; and (2) we wanted to stress-test the CMS Open Data framework, to assure it really does provide all the information needed for a search for something unknown.

Recently I discussed (1), and today I want to address (2): to convey why open data from the LHC is useful but controversial, and why we felt it was important, as theoretical physicists (i.e. people who perform particle physics calculations, but do not build and run the actual experiments), to do something with it that is usually the purview of experimenters.

The Importance of Archiving Data

In many subfields of physics and astronomy, data from experiments is made public as a matter of routine. Usually this occurs after an substantial delay, to allow the experimenters who collected the data to analyze it first for major discoveries. That’s as it should be: the experimenters spent years of their lives proposing, building and testing the experiment, and they deserve an uninterrupted opportunity to investigate its data. To force them to release data immediately would create a terrible disincentive for anyone to do all the hard work!

Data from particle physics colliders, however, has not historically been made public. More worrying, it has rarely been archived in a form that is easy for others to use at a later date. I’m not the right person to tell you the history of this situation, but I can give you a sense for why this still happens today. Continue reading

A Broad Search for Fast Hidden Particles

A few days ago I wrote a quick summary of a project that we just completed (and you may find it helpful to read that post first). In this project, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in a novel way, in two senses. Today I’m going to explain what we did, why we did it, and what was unconventional about our search strategy.

The first half of this post will be appropriate for any reader who has been following particle physics as a spectator sport, or in some similar vein. In the second half, I’ll add some comments for my expert colleagues that may be useful in understanding and appreciating some of our results.  [If you just want to read the comments for experts, jump here.]

Why did we do this?

Motivation first. Why, as theorists, would we attempt to take on the role of our experimental colleagues — to try on our own to analyze the extremely complex and challenging data from the LHC? We’re by no means experts in data analysis, and we were very slow at it. And on top of that, we only had access to 1% of the data that CMS has collected. Isn’t it obvious that there is no chance whatsoever of finding something new with just 1% of the data, since the experimenters have had years to look through much larger data sets? Continue reading

Breaking a Little New Ground at the Large Hadron Collider

Today, a small but intrepid band of theoretical particle physicists (professor Jesse Thaler of MIT, postdocs Yotam Soreq and Wei Xue of CERN, Harvard Ph.D. student Cari Cesarotti, and myself) put out a paper that is unconventional in two senses. First, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider in a way that hasn’t been done before, at least in public. And second, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider in a way that hasn’t been done before, at least in public.

And no, there’s no error in the previous paragraph.

1) We used a small amount of actual data from the CMS experiment, even though we’re not ourselves members of the CMS experiment, to do a search for a new particle. Both ATLAS and CMS, the two large multipurpose experimental detectors at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], have made a small fraction of their proton-proton collision data public, through a website called the CERN Open Data Portal. Some experts, including my co-authors Thaler, Xue and their colleagues, have used this data (and the simulations that accompany it) to do a variety of important studies involving known particles and their properties. [Here’s a blog post by Thaler concerning Open Data and its importance from his perspective.] But our new study is the first to look for signs of a new particle in this public data. While our chances of finding anything were low, we had a larger goal: to see whether Open Data could be used for such searches. We hope our paper provides some evidence that Open Data offers a reasonable path for preserving priceless LHC data, allowing it to be used as an archive by physicists of the post-LHC era.

2) Since only had a tiny fraction of CMS’s data was available to us, about 1% by some count, how could we have done anything useful compared to what the LHC experts have already done? Well, that’s why we examined the data in a slightly unconventional way (one of several methods that I’ve advocated for many years, but has not been used in any public study). Consequently it allowed us to explore some ground that no one had yet swept clean, and even have a tiny chance of an actual discovery! But the larger scientific goal, absent a discovery, was to prove the value of this unconventional strategy, in hopes that the experts at CMS and ATLAS will use it (and others like it) in future. Their chance of discovering something new, using their full data set, is vastly greater than ours ever was.

Now don’t all go rushing off to download and analyze terabytes of CMS Open Data; you’d better know what you’re getting into first. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not easy going. LHC data is extremely complicated, and until this project I’ve always been skeptical that it could be released in a form that anyone outside the experimental collaborations could use. Downloading the data and turning it into a manageable form is itself a major task. Then, while studying it, there are an enormous number of mistakes that you can make (and we made quite a few of them) and you’d better know how to make lots of cross-checks to find your mistakes (which, fortunately, we did know; we hope we found all of them!) The CMS personnel in charge of the Open Data project were enormously helpful to us, and we’re very grateful to them; but since the project is new, there were inevitable wrinkles which had to be worked around. And you’d better have some friends among the experimentalists who can give you advice when you get stuck, or point out aspects of your results that don’t look quite right. [Our thanks to them!]

All in all, this project took us two years! Well, honestly, it should have taken half that time — but it couldn’t have taken much less than that, with all we had to learn. So trying to use Open Data from an LHC experiment is not something you do in your idle free time.

Nevertheless, I feel it was worth it. At a personal level, I learned a great deal more about how experimental analyses are carried out at CMS, and by extension, at the LHC more generally. And more importantly, we were able to show what we’d hoped to show: that there are still tremendous opportunities for discovery at the LHC, through the use of (even slightly) unconventional model-independent analyses. It’s a big world to explore, and we took only a small step in the easiest direction, but perhaps our efforts will encourage others to take bigger and more challenging ones.

For those readers with greater interest in our work, I’ll put out more details in two blog posts over the next few days: one about what we looked for and how, and one about our views regarding the value of open data from the LHC, not only for our project but for the field of particle physics as a whole.

“Seeing” Double: Neutrinos and Photons Observed from the Same Cosmic Source

There has long been a question as to what types of events and processes are responsible for the highest-energy neutrinos coming from space and observed by scientists.  Another question, probably related, is what creates the majority of high-energy cosmic rays — the particles, mostly protons, that are constantly raining down upon the Earth.

As scientists’ ability to detect high-energy neutrinos (particles that are hugely abundant, electrically neutral, very light-weight, and very difficult to observe) and high-energy photons (particles of light, though not necessarily of visible light) have become more powerful and precise, there’s been considerable hope of getting an answer to these question.  One of the things we’ve been awaiting (and been disappointed a couple of times) is a violent explosion out in the universe that produces both high-energy photons and neutrinos at the same time, at a high enough rate that both types of particles can be observed at the same time coming from the same direction.

In recent years, there has been some indirect evidence that blazars — narrow jets of particles, pointed in our general direction like the barrel of a gun, and created as material swirls near and almost into giant black holes in the centers of very distant galaxies — may be responsible for the high-energy neutrinos.  Strong direct evidence in favor of this hypothesis has just been presented today.   Last year, one of these blazars flared brightly, and the flare created both high-energy neutrinos and high-energy photons that were observed within the same period, coming from the same place in the sky.

I have written about the IceCube neutrino observatory before; it’s a cubic kilometer of ice under the South Pole, instrumented with light detectors, and it’s ideal for observing neutrinos whose motion-energy far exceeds that of the protons in the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs particle was discovered.  These neutrinos mostly pass through Ice Cube undetected, but one in 100,000 hits something, and debris from the collision produces visible light that Ice Cube’s detectors can record.   IceCube has already made important discoveries, detecting a new class of high-energy neutrinos.

On Sept 22 of last year, one of these very high-energy neutrinos was observed at IceCube. More precisely, a muon created underground by the collision of this neutrino with an atomic nucleus was observed in IceCube.  To create the observed muon, the neutrino must have had a motion-energy tens of thousand times larger than than the motion-energy of each proton at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  And the direction of the neutrino’s motion is known too; it’s essentially the same as that of the observed muon.  So IceCube’s scientists knew where, on the sky, this neutrino had come from.

(This doesn’t work for typical cosmic rays; protons, for instance, travel in curved paths because they are deflected by cosmic magnetic fields, so even if you measure their travel direction at their arrival to Earth, you don’t then know where they came from. Neutrinos, beng electrically neutral, aren’t affected by magnetic fields and travel in a straight line, just as photons do.)

Very close to that direction is a well-known blazar (TXS-0506), four billion light years away (a good fraction of the distance across the visible universe).

The IceCube scientists immediately reported their neutrino observation to scientists with high-energy photon detectors.  (I’ve also written about some of the detectors used to study the very high-energy photons that we find in the sky: in particular, the Fermi/LAT satellite played a role in this latest discovery.) Fermi/LAT, which continuously monitors the sky, was already detecting high-energy photons coming from the same direction.   Within a few days the Fermi scientists had confirmed that TXS-0506 was indeed flaring at the time — already starting in April 2017 in fact, six times as bright as normal.  With this news from IceCube and Fermi/LAT, many other telescopes (including the MAGIC cosmic ray detector telescopes among others) then followed suit and studied the blazar, learning more about the properties of its flare.

Now, just a single neutrino on its own isn’t entirely convincing; is it possible that this was all just a coincidence?  So the IceCube folks went back to their older data to snoop around.  There they discovered, in their 2014-2015 data, a dramatic flare in neutrinos — more than a dozen neutrinos, seen over 150 days, had come from the same direction in the sky where TXS-0506 is sitting.  (More precisely, nearly 20 from this direction were seen, in a time period where normally there’d just be 6 or 7 by random chance.)  This confirms that this blazar is indeed a source of neutrinos.  And from the energies of the neutrinos in this flare, yet more can be learned about this blazar, and how it makes  high-energy photons and neutrinos at the same time.  Interestingly, so far at least, there’s no strong evidence for this 2014 flare in photons, except perhaps an increase in the number of the highest-energy photons… but not in the total brightness of the source.

The full picture, still emerging, tends to support the idea that the blazar arises from a supermassive black hole, acting as a natural particle accelerator, making a narrow spray of particles, including protons, at extremely high energy.  These protons, millions of times more energetic than those at the Large Hadron Collider, then collide with more ordinary particles that are just wandering around, such as visible-light photons from starlight or infrared photons from the ambient heat of the universe.  The collisions produce particles called pions, made from quarks and anti-quarks and gluons (just as protons are), which in turn decay either to photons or to (among other things) neutrinos.  And its those resulting photons and neutrinos which have now been jointly observed.

Since cosmic rays, the mysterious high energy particles from outer space that are constantly raining down on our planet, are mostly protons, this is evidence that many, perhaps most, of the highest energy cosmic rays are created in the natural particle accelerators associated with blazars. Many scientists have suspected that the most extreme cosmic rays are associated with the most active black holes at the centers of galaxies, and now we have evidence and more details in favor of this idea.  It now appears likely that that this question will be answerable over time, as more blazar flares are observed and studied.

The announcement of this important discovery was made at the National Science Foundation by Francis Halzen, the IceCube principal investigator, Olga Botner, former IceCube spokesperson, Regina Caputo, the Fermi-LAT analysis coordinator, and Razmik Mirzoyan, MAGIC spokesperson.

The fact that both photons and neutrinos have been observed from the same source is an example of what people are now calling “multi-messenger astronomy”; a previous example was the observation in gravitational waves, and in photons of many different energies, of two merging neutron stars.  Of course, something like this already happened in 1987, when a supernova was seen by eye, and also observed in neutrinos.  But in this case, the neutrinos and photons have energies millions and billions of times larger!