Particle physics impasse

Physics is the study of the physical universe. As a science, it involves a process consisting of two components. The theoretical component strives to construct theoretical models for the physical phenomena that we observe. The experimental component tests these theoretical models and explores the physical world for more information about phenomena.

Progress in physics is enhanced when many physicists using different approaches tackle the same problem. The diversity in the nature of problems need to be confronted by a diversity of perspectives. This diversity is reflected in the literature. The same physical phenomenon is often studied by different approaches, using different mathematical formulations. Some of them may turn out to produce the same results, but some may differ in their predictions. The experimental work can then be used to make a selection among them.

That is all fine and dandy for physics in general, but the situation is a bit more complicated for particle physics. Perhaps, one can see the reason for all these complications as the fact that particle physics is running out of observable energy space.

What do I mean by that? Progress in particle physics is (to some extent at least) indicated by understanding the fundamental mechanisms of nature at progressively higher energy scales. Today, we understand these fundamental mechanisms to a fairly good degree up to the electroweak scale (at about 200 GeV). It is described by the Standard Model, which was established during the 1970’s. So, for the past 4 decades, particle physicists tried to extend the understand beyond that scale. Various theoretical ideas were proposed, prominent among these were the idea of supersymmetry. Then a big experiment, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was constructed to test these ideas above the electroweak scale. It discovered the Higgs boson, which was the last extent particle predicted by the standard model. But no supersymmetry. In fact, none of the other ideas panned out at all. So there is a serious back-to-the-drawing-board situation going on in particle physics.

The problem is, the LHC did not discover anything else that could give a hint at what is going on up there, or did it? There will be another run to accumulate more data. The data still needs to be analyzed. Perhaps something can still emerge. Who knows? However, even if some new particle is lurking within the data, it becomes difficult to see. Such particles tend to be more unstable at those higher energies, leading to very broad peaks. To make things worse, there is so much more background noise. This makes it difficult, even unlikely, that such particles can be identified at these higher energies. At some point, no experiment would be able to observe such particles anymore.

The interesting things about the situation is the backlash that one reads about in the media. The particle physicists are arguing among themselves about the reason for the current situation and what the way forward should be. There are those that say that the proposed models were all a bunch of harebrained ideas that were then hyped and that we should not build any new colliders until we have done some proper theoretical work first.

See, the problem with building new colliders is the cost involved. It is not like other fields of physics where the local funding organization can support several experimental groups. These colliders require several countries to pitch in to cover the cost. (OK, particle physics is not the only field with such big ticket experiments.)

The combined effect of the unlikeness to observe new particles at higher energies and the cost involved to build new colliders at higher energies, creates an impasse in particle physics. Although they may come up with marvelous new theories for the mechanisms above the electroweak scale, it may be impossible to see whether these theories are correct. Perhaps the last energy scale below which we will be able to understand the fundamental mechanisms in a scientific manner, will turn out to be the electroweak scale.

Glad I did not stay in particle physics.

Neutrino dust

It is the current understanding that the universe came into being in a hot big bang event. All matter initially existed as a very hot “soup” (or plasma) of charged particles – protons and electrons. The neutral atom (mostly hydrogen) only appeared after the soup cooled off a bit. At that point, the light that was produced by the thermal radiation of the hot matter had a chance to escape being directly re-absorbed.

Much of that light is still around today. We call it the microwave background radiation, because today that light has turned into microwave radiation as a result of being extremely Doppler-shifted toward low frequencies. The extreme Doppler-shift is caused by the expansion of the universe that happened since the origin of the microwave background radiation.

It is reasonable to assume that the very energetic conditions that existed during the big bang would have caused some of the hydrogen nuclei (protons) to combine in a fusion process to form helium nuclei. At the same time, some of the protons are converted to neutrons. The weak interaction mediates this process and it produces a neutrino, the lightest matter particle (fermion) that we know of.

So what happened to all these neutrinos? They were emitted at the same time or even before the light that caused the microwave background radiation. Since neutrinos are so light, their velocities are close to that of the speed of light. While expansion of the universe causes the light to be red-shifted, it also causes the neutrinos, which have a small mass to be slowed down. (Light never slows down, it always propagates at the speed of light.) Eventually these neutrinos are so slow that they are effectively stationary with respect to the local region in space. At this point they become dust, drifting along aimlessly in space.

While, since they do have mass, the neutrinos will be attracted by massive objects like the galaxies. So, the moment their velocities fall below the escape velocity of a nearby galaxy, they will become gravitationally bound to that galaxy. However, since they do not interact very strongly with matter, they will keep on orbiting these galaxies. So the neutrino dust will become clouds of dust in the vicinity of galaxies.

Hubble Space Telescope observes diffuse starlight in Galaxy Cluster Abell S1063NASAESA, and M. Montes (University of New South Wales)

Could the neutrino dust be the dark matter that we are looking for? Due to their small mass and the ratio of protons to neutrons in the universe, it is unlikely that there would be enough neutrinos to account for the missing mass attributed to dark matter. The ordinary neutrino dust would contribute to the effect of dark matter, but may not solve the whole problem.

There are some speculations that the three neutrinos may not be the only neutrinos that exist. Some theories also consider the possibility that an additional sterile neutrino exists. These sterile neutrinos could have large masses. For this reason, they have been considered as candidates for the dark matter. How these heavy neutrinos would have been produced is not clear, but, if they were produced during the big bang, they would also have undergone the same slow-down and eventually be converted into dust. So, it could be that there are a lot of them drifting around aimlessly through space.

Interesting, don’t you think?

Particle physics blues

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) recently completed its second run. While the existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed during the first run, the outcome from the second run was … well, shall we say somewhat less than spectacular. In view of the fact that the LHC carries a pretty hefty price tag, this rather disappointing state of affairs is producing a certain degree of soul searching within the particle physics community. One can see that from the discussions here and here.

CMS detector at LHC (from wikipedia)

So what went wrong? Judging from the discussions, one may guess it could be a combination of things. Perhaps it is all the hype that accompanies some of the outlandish particle physics predictions. Or perhaps it is the overly esoteric theoretical nature of some of the physics theories. String theory seems to be singled out as an example of a mathematical theory without any practical predictions.

Perhaps the reason for the current state of affairs in particle physics is none of the above. Reading the above-mentioned discussions, one gets the picture from those that are close to the fire. Sometimes it helps to step away and look at the situation from a little distance. Could it be that, while these particle physicists vehemently analyze all the wrong ideas and failed approaches that emerged over the past few decades (even starting to question one of the foundations of the scientific method: falsifiability), they are missing the elephant in the room?

The field of particle physics has been around for a while. It has a long history of advances: from uncovering the structure of the atom, to revealing the constituents of protons and neutrons. The culmination is the Standard Model of Particle Physics – a truly remarkable edifice of current understand.

So what now? What’s next? Well, the standard model does not include gravity. So there is still a strong activity to come up with a theory that would include gravity with the other forces currently included in the standard model. It is the main motivation behind string theory. There’s another issue. The standard model lacks something called naturalness. The main motivation for the LHC was to address this problem. Unfortunately, the LHC has not been able to solve the issue and it seems unlikely that it, or any other collider, ever will. Perhaps that alludes to the real issue.

Could it be that particle physics has reached the stage where the questions that need answers cannot be answered through experiments anymore? The energy scales where the answers to these questions would be observable are just too high. If this is indeed the case, it would mark the end of particle physics as we know it. It would enter a stage of unverifiable philosophy. One may be able to construct beautiful mathematical theories to address the remaining questions. But one would never know whether these theories are correct.

What then?