Tag Archives: DarkMatter

X-Rays From Dark Matter? A Little Hint For You To Enjoy

Well it’s not much to write home about, and I’m not going to write about it in detail right now, but the Resonaances blog has done so (and he’s asking for your traffic, so please click):

A team of six astronomers reports that when they examine the light (more specifically, the X-rays) coming from clusters of galaxies around the sky, and account for all the X-ray emission lines [light emitted in extremely narrow bands by atoms or their nuclei] they know about, there’s an excess of photons [particles of light] with energy E=(3.55-3.57)+/-0.03 keV, a “weak unidentified emission line”, that can’t easily be explained.  What could it be?

[A keV is 1000 eV; an eV is an electron-volt, an amount of energy typical of chemical reactions.  Note that physicists and astronomers commonly use the word “light” to refer not just to “visible light” — the light you can see — but to all electromagnetic waves, no matter what their frequency. ]

Well first: is this emission line really there?  The astronomers claim to detect it in several ways, but “the detection is at the limit of the current instrument capabilities and subject to significant modeling uncertainties” — in other words, it requires some squinting — so they are cautious in their statements.

Second: if it’s really there, what’s it due to?  Well, the most exciting and least likely possibility is that it’s from dark matter particles decaying to a photon with the above-mentioned energy plus a second, unobserved, particle — perhaps a neutrino, perhaps something else.   I’ll let Resonaances explain the sterile neutrino hypothesis, in which the dark matter particles are kind of like neutrinos — they’re fermions, like neutrinos, and they are connected to neutrinos in some way, though they aren’t as directly affected by the weak nuclear force.

But before you get excited, note that the authors state: “However, based on the cluster masses and distances, the line in Perseus is much brighter than expected in this model, significantly deviating from other subsamples.”  In other words: don’t get excited, because something very funny is going on in the Perseus cluster, and until that’s understood, the data can’t be said to be particularly consistent with a dark matter hypothesis.

One more anomaly — one more hint of dark matter — to put on the pile of weak and largely unrelated hints that we’ve already got!  I don’t suggest losing sleep over it… at least not until it’s confirmed by other groups and the Perseus cluster’s odd emissions are explained.

More Examples of Possible Unexpected Higgs Decays

As I explained on Tuesday, I’m currently writing articles for this website that summarize the results of a study, on which I’m one of thirteen co-authors, of various types of decays that the newly-discovered Higgs particle might exhibit, with a focus on measurements that could be done now with 2011-2012 Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data, or very soon with 2015-2018 data.  See Tuesday’s post for an explanation of what this is all about.

On Tuesday I told you I’d created a page summarizing what we know about possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles, which in turn decay to quark pairs or lepton pairs according to our general expectation that heavier particles are preferred in spin-zero-particle decays. A number of theories (including models with more Higgs particles, certain non-minimal supersymmetric models, some Little Higgs models, and various dark matter models) predict this possibility.

Today I’ve added to that page (starting below figure 4) to include possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles which in turn decay to gluon or photon pairs, according to our general expectation that, if the new spin-zero particles don’t interact very strongly with quarks or leptons, then they will typically decay to the force particles, with a rate roughly related to the strengths of the corresponding forces.  While fewer known theories directly predict this possibility compared to the one in the previous paragraph, the ease of looking for Higgs particles decaying to four photons motivates an attempt to do so in current data.

I have a few other classes of Higgs particle exotic decays to cover, so more articles on this subject will follow shortly!

Unexpected Decays of the Higgs Particle: What We Found

A few weeks ago, I reported on the completion of a large project, with which I’ve been personally involved, to investigate how particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] could be searching, not only in the future but even right now, for possible “Exotic Decays” of the newly-discovered Higgs particle .

By the term “exotic decays” (also called “non-Standard-Model [non-SM] Decays”), we mean “decays of this particle that are not expected to occur unless there’s something missing from the Standard Model (the set of equations we use to describe the known elementary particles and forces and the simplest possible type of Higgs field and its particle).”  I’ve written extensively on this website about this possibility (see herehere,  hereherehereherehere and here), though mostly in general terms. In our recent paper on Exotic Decays, we have gone into nitty-gritty detail… the sort of detail only an expert could love.  This week I’m splitting the difference, providing a detailed and semi-technical overview of the results of our work.  This includes organized lists of some of the decays we’re most likely to run across, and suggestions regarding the ones most promising to look for (which aren’t always the most common ones.)

Before I begin, let me again mention the twelve young physicists who were co-authors on this work, all of whom are pre-tenure and several of whom are still not professors yet.  [ When New Scientist reported on our work, they unfortunately didn’t even mention, much less list, my co-authors.] They are (in alphabetical order): David Curtin, Rouven Essig, Stefania Gori, Prerit Jaiswal, Andrey Katz, Tao Liu, Zhen Liu, David McKeen, Jessie Shelton, Ze’ev Surujon, Brock Tweedie, and Yi-Ming Zhong. Continue reading

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed Again by Alan Boyle

Today, Wednesday December 4th, at 8 pm Eastern/5 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed again by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is


What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, blogger at Preposterous Universe, who recently completed an excellent and now prize-winning popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  “Cosmic Log“].

Sean and I were interviewed in February by Alan on this program; here’s the link.  I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

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.

Breaking News: Two Great New Measurements

Two new ground-breaking measurements reported results in the last 24 hours!  Here are very quick summaries.

A group of atomic physicists, called the ACME collaboration, has performed the best search so far for the electric dipole moment (EDM) of the electron.  Unfortunately they didn’t find the EDM, but the limit

  • |de| < 8.7  10-29 e cm

is 12 times stronger than the previous one.  While this is still a billion times larger than what is expected in the Standard Model of particle physics (the equations used for the known elementary particles and forces), there are various types of as-yet unknown particles and forces that could easily produce a much larger electron EDM, through new violations of T symmetry (or, almost equivalently, CP symmetry).  These effects could have been large enough to have been discovered by this experiment, so those types of possible phenomena are now more constrained than before.  Fortunately, there’s more to look forward to; the method these folks are using can eventually be improved by another factor of 10 or so, meaning that a discovery using this technique is still possible.

This morning the LUX dark matter experiment reported new results, and knocked everyone’s socks off.  They have understood their backgrounds from radioactivity much better and more quickly than most of us expected, using new calibration methods and a much better characterization of their backgrounds than has previously been possible.  Although they have a detector only a bit larger than XENON100 and have only run the detector underground for three months, compared to the year or so that XENON100 ran previously, their limits on the rate for a dark matter particle to hit a Xenon nucleus beats XENON100’s results by a factor of 2 for a dark matter particle of mass 1000 GeV/c², increasing to about a factor of 3 for a dark matter particle in the 100 GeV/c² mass range, and soaring to a factor of 20 for a dark matter particle in the 10 GeV/c² mass range.  Consequently, LUX pretty definitively rules out the possibility, hinted at by several dark matter experiments (as discussed in the second half of the article I wrote about this in April), of a dark matter particle in the 5 – 20 GeV/c² mass range.  (See the figure below.) While XENON100 seemed to contradict this possibility already, it didn’t do so by a huge factor, so there were questions raised as to whether their result was convincing. But the sort of ~10 GeV/c² dark matter that people were talking about is ruled out by LUX by such a large factor that finding ways around their result seems nigh impossible.   And again, there’s more to look forward to; by 2015 their results should improve by another factor of 5 or so… so they get another shot at a discovery, as will XENON1T, the successor to XENON100.

Congratulations to both groups for their spectacular achievements!

Results from the LUX paper, with labels added (hopefully correctly) by me; the shaded blue area is the range that LUX expected to reach, and the blue line their actual result, which exceeds the XENON100 result (red line).  The left plot shows the range 10 - 1000 GeV/c^2; the right plot is an inset showing details of the low-mass region, along with the hints of signals from DAMA/LIBRA, COGENT, CMDS and CRESST, all of which now appear entirely implausible.

Results from the LUX paper, showing excluded regions as a function of dark-matter particle mass (horizontal axis) and dark-matter/nucleus collision rate (vertical axis), with labels added (hopefully correctly) by me.  The shaded blue area is the range that LUX expected to reach, and the blue line their actual limit, which considerably exceeds the XENON100 result (red line) at all masses. The left plot shows the mass range 3 – 4000 GeV/c^2; the right plot is an inset showing details of the 5 – 12 GeV/c^2 mass region, along with the hints of signals from DAMA/LIBRA, COGENT, CMDS and CRESST, all of which now appear entirely implausible.