Tag Archives: LHC

The Summer View at CERN

For the first time in some years, I’m spending two and a half weeks at CERN (the lab that hosts the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]). Most of my recent visits have been short or virtual, but this time* there’s a theory workshop that has collected together a number of theoretical particle physicists, and it’s a good opportunity for all of us to catch up with the latest creative ideas in the subject.   It’s also an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the furtive immensity of Mont Blanc, a hulking bump on the southern horizon, although only if (as is rarely the case) nature offers clear and beautiful weather.

More importantly, new results on the data collected so far in 2016 at the LHC are coming very soon!  They will be presented at the ICHEP conference that will be held in Chicago starting August 3rd. And there’s something we’ll be watching closely.

You may remember that in a post last December I wrote:

  “Everybody wants to know. That bump seen on the ATLAS and CMS two-photon plots!  What… IS… it…?

Why the excitement? A bump of this type can be a signal of a new particle (as was the case for the Higgs particle itself.) And since a new particle that would produce a bump of this size was both completely unexpected and completely plausible, there was hope that we were seeing a hint of something new and important.

However, as I wrote in the same post,

  “Well, to be honest, probably it’s just that: a bump on a plot. But just in case it’s not…”

and I went on to discuss briefly what it might mean if it wasn’t just a statistical fluke. But speculation may be about to end: finally, we’re about to find out if it was indeed just a fluke — or a sign of something real.

Since December the amount of 13 TeV collision data available at ATLAS and CMS (the two general purpose experiments at the LHC) has roughly quadrupled, which means that typical bumps and wiggles on their 2015-2016 plots have decreased in relative size by about a factor of two (= square root of four). If the December bump is just randomness, it should also decrease in relative size. If it’s real, it should remain roughly the same relative size, but appear more prominent relative to the random bumps and wiggles around it.

Now, there’s a caution to be added here. The December ATLAS bump was so large and fat compared to what was seen at CMS that (since reality has to appear the same at both experiments, once enough data has been collected) it was pretty obvious that even if it there were a real bump there, at ATLAS it was probably in combination with a statistical fluke that made it look larger and fatter than its true nature. [Something similar happened with the Higgs; the initial bump that ATLAS saw was twice as big as expected, which is why it showed up so early, but it gradually has shrunk as more data has been collected and it is now close to its expected size.  In retrospect, that tells us that ATLAS’s original signal was indeed combined with a statistical fluke that made it appear larger than it really is.] What that means is that even if the December bumps were real, we would expect the ATLAS bump to shrink in size (but not statistical significance) and we would expect the CMS bump to remain of similar size (but grow in statistical significance). Remember, though, that “expectation” is not certainty, because at every stage statistical flukes (up or down) are possible.

In about a week we’ll find out where things currently stand. But the mood, as I read it here in the hallways and cafeteria, is not one of excitement. Moreover, the fact that the update to the results is (at the moment) unobtrusively scheduled for a parallel session of the ICHEP conference next Friday, afternoon time at CERN, suggests we’re not going  to see convincing evidence of anything exciting. If so, then the remaining question will be whether the reverse is true: whether the data will show convincing evidence that the December bump was definitely a fluke.

Flukes are guaranteed; with limited amounts of data, they can’t be avoided.  Discoveries, on the other hand, require skill, insight, and luck: you must ask a good question, address it with the best available methods, and be fortunate enough that (as is rarely the case) nature offers a clear and interesting answer.

 

*I am grateful for the CERN theory group’s financial support during this visit.

Pop went the Weasel, but Vroom goes the LHC

At the end of April, as reported hysterically in the press, the Large Hadron Collider was shut down and set back an entire week by a “fouine”, an animal famous for chewing through wires in cars, and apparently in colliders too. What a rotten little weasel! especially for its skill in managing to get the English-language press to blame the wrong species — a fouine is actually a beech marten, not a weasel, and I’m told it goes Bzzzt, not Pop. But who’s counting?

Particle physicists are counting. Last week the particle accelerator operated so well that it generated almost half as many collisions as were produced in 2015 (from July til the end of November), bringing the 2016 total to about three-fourths of 2015.

 

The key question is how many of the next few weeks will be like this past one.  We’d be happy with three out of five, even two.  If the amount of 2016 data can significantly exceed that of 2015 by July 15th, as now seems likely, a definitive answer to the question on everyone’s mind (namely, what is the bump on that plot?!? a new particle? or just a statistical fluke?) might be available at the time of the early August ICHEP conference.

So it’s looking more likely that we’re going to have an interesting August… though it’s not at all clear yet whether we’ll get great news (in which case we get no summer vacation), bad news (in which case we’ll all need a vacation), or ambiguous news (in which case we wait a few additional months for yet more news.)

The Two-Photon Excess at LHC Brightens Slightly

Back in December 2015, there was some excitement when the experiments ATLAS and CMS at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] — especially ATLAS — reported signs of an unexpectedly large number of proton-proton collisions in which

  • two highly energetic photons [particles of light] were produced, and
  • the two photons could possibly have been produced in a decay of an unknown particle, whose mass would be about six times the mass of the Higgs particle (which ATLAS and CMS discovered in 2012.)

This suggested the possibility of an unknown particle of some type with rest mass of 750 GeV/c².  However, the excess could just be a statistical fluke, of no scientific importance and destined to vanish with more data.

The outlook for that bump on a plot at 750 GeV has gotten a tad brighter… because not only do we have ATLAS’s plot, we now have increasing evidence for a similar bump on CMS’s plot. This is thanks largely to some hard work on the part of the CMS experimenters.  Some significant improvements at CMS,

  1. improved understanding of their photon energy measurements in their 2015 data,
  2. ability to use 2015 collisions taken when their giant magnet wasn’t working — fortunately, the one type of particle whose identity and energy can be measured without a magnet is… a photon!
  3. combination of the 2015 data with their 2012 data,

have increased the significance of their observed excess by a moderate amount. Here’s the scorecard.*

  • CMS 2015 data (Dec.): excess is 2.6σ local, < 1σ global
  • CMS 2015 data (improved, Mar.) 2.9σ local, < 1σ global
  • CMS 2015+2012 data: 3.4σ local, 1.6σ global
  • ATLAS 2015 data (Dec. and Mar.): 3.6σ local, 2.0σ global to get a narrow bump [and 3.9σ local , 2.3σ global to get a somewhat wider bump, but notice this difference is quite insignificant, so narrow and wider are pretty much equally ok.]
  • ATLAS 2015+2012 data: not reported, but clearly goes up a bit more, by perhaps half a sigma?

You can read a few more details at Resonaances.

*Significance is measured in σ (“standard deviations”) and for confidence in potentially revolutionary results we typically want to see local significance approaching 5σ and global approaching 3σ in both experiments. (The “local” significance tells you how unlikely it is to see a random bump of a certain size at a particular location in the plot, while the “global” significance tells you how unlikely it is to see such a bump anywhere in the plot … obviously smaller because of the look-elsewhere effect.)

This is good news, but it doesn’t really reflect a qualitative change in the situation. It leaves us slightly more optimistic (which is much better than the alternative!) but, as noted in December, we still won’t actually know anything until we have either (a) more data to firm up the evidence for these bumps, or (b) a discovery of a completely independent clue, perhaps in existing data. Efforts for (b) are underway, and of course (a) will get going when the LHC starts again… soon!  Next news on this probably not til June at the earliest… unless we’re very lucky!

So What Is It???

So What Is It? That’s the question one hears in all the bars and on all the street corners and on every Twitter feed and in the whispering of the wind. Everybody wants to know. That bump seen on the ATLAS and CMS two-photon plots! What… IS… it…?

ATLAS_CMS_diphoton_2015

The two-photon results from ATLAS (top) and CMS (bottom) aligned, so that the 600, 700 and 800 GeV locations (blue vertical lines) line up almost perfectly. The peaks in the two data sets are in about the same location. ATLAS’s is larger and also wider. Click here for more commentary.

Well, to be honest, probably it’s just that: a bump on a plot. But just in case it’s not — just in case it really is the sign of a new particle in Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data — let me (start to) address the question.

First: what it isn’t. It can’t just be a second Higgs particle (a heavier version of the one found in 2012) that is just appended to the known particles, with no other particles added in.   Continue reading

First Big Results from LHC at 13 TeV

A few weeks ago, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] ended its 2015 data taking of 13 TeV proton-proton collisions.  This month we’re getting our first look at the data.

Already the ATLAS experiment has put out two results which are a significant and impressive contribution to human knowledge.  CMS has one as well (sorry to have overlooked it the first time, but it isn’t posted on the usual Twiki page for some reason.) Continue reading

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.

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.