Moon Covers Venus Shortly

The Moon will occult (i.e. move in front of and eclipse) the planet Venus today, as visible (yes, in daytime, if you have binoculars or a telescope) across the United States sometime between 11 and 12:45 this morning, depending on where you live.  Earlier out west, later in the east. If you want to see the heavens are really in motion, here’s a chance.  Below is a link to an article that gives the details:

An Overdue Update

A number of people have asked why the blog has been quiet. To make a long story short, my two-year Harvard visit came to an end, and my grant proposals were turned down. No other options showed up except for a six-week fellowship at the Galileo Institute (thanks to the Simons Foundation), which ended last month.  So I am now employed outside of science, although I maintain a loose affiliation with Harvard as an “Associate of the Physics Department” (thanks to Professor Matt Schwartz and his theorist colleagues).

Context: U.S. government cuts to theoretical high-energy physics groups have been 25% to 50% in the last couple of years. (Despite news articles suggesting otherwise, billionaires have not made up for the cuts; and most donations have gone to string theory, not particle physics.) Spare resources are almost impossible to find. The situation is much better in certain other countries, but personal considerations keep me in this one.

News from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) this year, meanwhile, is optimistic though not without worries. The collider itself operated well despite some hiccups, and things look very good for next year, when the increased energy and high collision rate will make the opportunities for discoveries the greatest since 2011. However, success depends upon the CMS experimenters and their CERN lab support fixing some significant technical problems afflicting the CMS detector and causing it to misbehave some fraction of the time. The ATLAS detector is working more or less fine (as is LHCb, as far as I know), but the LHC can’t run at all while any one of the experimental detectors is open for repairs. Let’s hope these problems can be solved quickly and the 2016 run won’t be much delayed.

There’s a lot more to say about other areas of the field (gravitational waves, neutrinos, etc.) but other bloggers will have to tell those tales. I’ll keep the website on-line, and will probably write some posts if something big happens. And meanwhile I am slowly writing a book about particle physics for non-experts. I might post some draft sections on this website as they are written, and I hope you’ll see the book in print sometime in the next few years.

LHC Starts Collisions; and a Radio Interview Tonight

In the long and careful process of restarting the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] after its two-year nap for upgrades and repairs, another milestone has been reached: protons have once again collided inside the LHC’s experimental detectors (named ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE). This is good news, but don’t get excited yet. It’s just one small step. These are collisions at the lowest energy at which the LHC operates (450 GeV per proton, to be compared with the 4000 GeV per proton in 2012 and the 6500 GeV per proton they’ve already achieved in the last month, though in non-colliding beams.) Also the number of protons in the beams, and the number of collisions per second, is still very, very small compared to what will be needed. So discoveries are not imminent!  Yesterday’s milestone was just one of the many little tests that are made to assure that the LHC is properly set up and ready for the first full-energy collisions, which should start in about a month.

But since full-energy collisions are on the horizon, why not listen to a radio show about what the LHC will be doing after its restart is complete? Today (Wednesday May 6th), Virtually Speaking Science, on which I have appeared a couple of times before, will run a program at 5 pm Pacific time (8 pm Eastern). Science writer Alan Boyle will be interviewing me about the LHC’s plans for the next few months and the coming years. You can listen live, or listen later once they post it.  Here’s the link for the program.

Completed Final Section of Article on Dark Matter and LHC

As promised, I’ve completed the third section, as well as a short addendum to the second section, of my article on how experimenters at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] can try to discover dark matter particles.   The article is here; if you’ve already read what I wrote as of last Wednesday, you can pick up where you left off by clicking here.

Meanwhile, in the last week there were several dark-matter related stories that hit the press.

There has been a map made by the Dark Energy Survey of dark matter’s location across a swathe of the universe, based on the assumption that weak signals of gravitational lensing (bending of light by gravity) that cannot be explained by observed stars and dust is due to dark matter.  This will be useful down the line as we test simulations of the universe such as the one I referred you to on Wednesday.

There’s been a claim that dark matter interacts with itself, which got a lot of billing in the BBC; however one should be extremely cautious with this one, and the BBC editor should have put the word “perhaps” in the headline! It’s certainly possible that dark matter interacts with itself much more strongly than it interacts with ordinary matter, and many scientists (including myself) have considered this possibility over the years.  However, the claim reported by the BBC is considered somewhat dubious even by the authors of the study, because the little group of four galaxies they are studying is complicated and has to be modeled carefully.  The effect they observed may well be due to ordinary astrophysical effects, and in any case it is less than 3 Standard Deviations away from zero, which makes it more a hint than evidence.  We will need many more examples, or a far more compelling one, before anyone will get too excited about this.

Finally, the AMS experiment (whose early results I reported on here; you can find their September update here) has released some new results, but not yet in papers, so there’s limited information.  The most important result is the one whose details will apparently take longest to come out: this is the discovery (see the figure below) that the ratio of anti-protons to protons in cosmic rays of energies above 100 GeV is not decreasing as was expected. (Note this is a real discovery by AMS alone — in contrast the excess positron-to-electron ratio at similar energies, which was discovered by PAMELA and confirmed by AMS.)  The only problem is that they’ve made the discovery seem very exciting and dramatic by comparing their work to expectations from a model that is out of date and that no one seems to believe.  This model (the brown swathe in the Figure below) tries to predict how high-energy anti-protons are produced (“secondary production”) from even higher energy protons in cosmic rays.  Newer versions of this models are apparently significantly higher than the brown curve. Moreover, some scientists claim also that the uncertainty band (the width of the brown curve) on these types of models is wider than shown in the Figure.  At best, the modeling needs a lot more study before we can say that this discovery is really in stark conflict with expectations.  So stay tuned, but again, this is not yet something that in which one can have confidence.  The experts will be busy.

Figure 1. Antiproton to proton ratio measured by AMS. As seen, the measured ratio cannot be explained by existing models of secondary production.

Figure 1. Antiproton to proton ratio (red data points, with uncertainties given by vertical bars) as measured by AMS. AMS claims that the measured ratio cannot be explained by existing models of secondary production, but the model shown (brown swathe, with uncertainties given by the width of the swathe) is an old one; newer ones lie closer to the data. Also, the uncertainties in the models are probably larger than shown. Whether this is a true discrepancy with expectations is now a matter of healthy debate among the experts.

Science Festival About to Start in Cambridge, MA

It’s a busy time here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the US’s oldest urban Science Festival opens tomorrow for its 2015 edition.  It has been 100 years since Einstein wrote his equations for gravity, known as his Theory of General Relativity, and so this year a significant part of the festival involves Celebrating Einstein.  The festival kicks off tomorrow with a panel discussion of Einstein and his legacy near Harvard University — and I hope some of you can go!   Here are more details:


First Parish in Cambridge, 1446 Massachusetts Avenue, Harvard Square, Cambridge
Friday, April 17; 7:30pm-9:30pm

Officially kicking off the Cambridge Science Festival, four influential physicists will sit down to discuss how Einstein’s work shaped the world we live in today and where his influence will continue to push the frontiers of science in the future!

Our esteemed panelists include:
Lisa Randall | Professor of Physics, Harvard University
Priyamvada Natarajan | Professor of Astronomy & Physics, Yale University
Clifford Will | Professor of Physics, University of Florida
Peter Galison | Professor of History of Science, Harvard University
David Kaiser | Professor of the History of Science, MIT

Cost: $10 per person, $5 per student, Tickets available now at

More on Dark Matter and the Large Hadron Collider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The LHC restarts — in a manner of speaking —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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