Tag Archives: supersymmetry

Decay of the False Vacuum

The Decay of the False Vacuum

Written by Sten Odenwald. Copyright (C) 1983 Kalmbach Publishing. Reprinted by permission

In the recently developed theory by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam, that unifies the electromagnetic and weak forces, the vacuum is not empty. This peculiar situation comes about because of the existence of a new type of field, called the Higgs field. The Higgs field has an important physical consequence since its interaction with the W, W and Z particles (the carriers of the weak force) causes them to gain mass at energies below 100 billion electron volts (100 Gev). Above this energy they are quite massless just like the photon and it is this characteristic that makes the weak and electromagnetic forces so similar at high energy.

On a somewhat more abstract level, consider Figures 1 and 2 representing the average energy of the vacuum state. If the universe were based on the vacuum state in Figure 1, it is predicted that the symmetry between the electromagnetic and weak interactions would be quite obvious. The particles mediating the forces would all be massless and behave in the same way. The corresponding forces would be indistinguishable. This would be the situation if the universe had an average temperature of 1 trillion degrees so that the existing particles collided at energies of 100 Gev. In Figure 2, representing the vacuum state energy for collision energies below 100 Gev, the vacuum state now contains the Higgs field and the symmetry between the forces is suddenly lost or ‘broken’. Although at low energy the way in which the forces behave is asymmetric, the fundamental laws governing the electromagnetic and weak interactions remain inherently symmetric. This is a very remarkable and profound prediction since it implies that certain symmetries in Nature can be hidden from us but are there nonetheless.

During the last 10 years physicists have developed even more powerful theories that attempt to unify not only the electromagnetic and weak forces but the strong nuclear force as well. These are called the Grand Unification Theories (GUTs) and the simplist one known was developed by Howard Georgi, Helen Quinn,and Steven Weinberg and is called SU(5), (pronounced ‘ess you five’). This theory predicts that the nuclear and ‘electroweak’ forces will eventually have the same strength but only when particles collide at energies above 1 thousand trillion GeV corresponding to the unimaginable temperature of 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees! SU(5) requires exactly 24 particles to mediate forces of which the 8 massless gluons of the nuclear force, the 3 massless intermediate vector bosons of the weak force and the single massless photon of the electromagnetic force are 12. The remaining 12 represent a totally new class of particles called Leptoquark bosons that have the remarkable property that they can transform quarks into electrons. SU(5) therefore predicts the existence of a ‘hyperweak’ interaction; a new fifth force in the universe! Currently, this force is 10 thousand trillion trillion times weaker than the weak force but is nevertheless 100 million times stronger than gravity. What would this new force do? Since protons are constructed from 3 quarks and since quarks can now decay into electrons, through the Hyperweak interaction, SU(5) predicts that protons are no longer the stable particles we have always imagined them to be. Crude calculations suggest that they may have half-lives between 10^29 to 10^33 years. An immediate consequence of this is that even if the universe were destined to expand for all eternity, after ‘only’ 10^32 years or so, all of the matter present would catastrophically decay into electrons, neutrinos and photons. The Era of Matter, with its living organisms, stars and galaxies, would be swept away forever, having represented but a fleeting episode in the history of the universe. In addition to proton decay, SU(5) predicts that at the energy characteristic of the GUT transition, we will see the affects of a new family of particles called supermassive Higgs bosons whose masses are expected to be approximately 1 thousand trillion GeV! These particles interact with the 12 Leptoquarks and make them massive just as the Higgs bosons at 100 GeV made the W, W and Z particles heavy. Armed with this knowledge, let’s explore some of the remarkable cosmological consequences of these exciting theories.

The GUT Era

To see how these theories relate to the history of the universe, imagine if you can a time when the average temperature of the universe was not the frigid 3 K that it is today but an incredable 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees (10^15 GeV). The ‘Standard Model’ of the Big Bang, tells us this happened about 10^-37 seconds after Creation. The protons and neutrons that we are familiar with today hadn’t yet formed since their constituent quarks interacted much too weakly to permit them to bind together into ‘packages’ like neutrons and protons. The remaining constituents of matter, electrons, muons and tau leptons, were also massless and traveled about at essentially light-speed; They were literally a new form of radiation, much like light is today! The 12 supermassive Leptoquarks as well as the supermassivs Higgs bosons existed side-by-side with their anti-particles. Every particle-anti particle pair that was annihilated was balanced by the resurrection of a new pair somewhere else in the universe. During this period, the particles that mediated the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces were completely massless so that these forces were no longer distinguishable. An inhabitant of that age would not have had to theorize about the existence of a symmetry between the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions, this symmetry would have been directly observable and furthermore, fewer types of particles would exist for the inhabitants to keep track of. The universe would actually have beed much simpler then!

As the universe continued to expand, the temperature continued to plummet. It has been suggested by Demetres Nanopoulis and Steven Weinberg in 1979 that one of the supermassive Higgs particles may have decayed in such a way that slightly more matter was produced than anti-matter. The remaining evenly matched pairs of particles and anti-particles then annihilated to produce the radiation that we now see as the ‘cosmic fireball’.

Exactly what happened to the universe as it underwent the transitions at 10^15 and 100 GeV when the forces of Nature suddenly became distinguishable is still under investigation, but certain tantalizing descriptions have recently been offered by various groups of theoriticians working on this problem. According to studies by Alan Guth, Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczyk between 1979 and 1981, when the GUT transition occured, it occured in a way not unlike the formation of vapor bubbles in a pot of boiling water. In this analogy, the interior of the bubbles represent the vacuum state in the new phase, where the forces are distinguishable, embedded in the old symmetric phase where the nuclear, weak and electromagnetic forces are indistinguishable. Inside these bubbles, the vacuum energy is of the type illustrated by Figure 2 while outside it is represented by Figure 1. Since we are living within the new phase with its four distinguishable forces, this has been called the ‘true’ vacuum state. In the false vacuum state, the forces remain indistinguishable which is certainly not the situation that we find ourselves in today!

Cosmic Inflation

An exciting prediction of Guth’s model is that the universe may have gone through at least one period in its history when the expansion was far more rapid than predicted by the ‘standard’ Big Bang model. The reason for this is that the vacuum itself also contributes to the energy content of the universe just as matter and radiation do however, the contribution is in the opposite sense. Although gravity is an attractive force, the vacuum of space produces a force that is repulsive. As Figures 1 and 2 show, the minimum energy state of the false vacuum at ‘A’ before the GUT transition is at a higher energy than in the true vacuum state in ‘B’ after the transition. This energy difference is what contributes to the vacuum energy. During the GUT transition period, the positive pressure due to the vacuum energy would have been enormously greater than the restraining pressure produced by the gravitational influence of matter and radiation. The universe would have inflated at a tremendous rate, the inflation driven by the pressure of the vacuum! In this picture of the universe, Einstein’s cosmological constant takes on a whole new meaning since it now represents a definite physical concept ; It is simply a measure of the energy difference between the true and false vacuum states (‘B’ and ‘A’ in Figures 1 and 2.) at a particular time in the history of the universe. It also tells us that, just as in de Sitter’s model, a universe where the vacuum contributes in this way must expand exponentially in time and not linearly as predicted by the Big Bang model. Guth’s scenario for the expansion of the universe is generally called the ‘inflationary universe’ due to the rapidity of the expansion and represents a phase that will end only after the true vacuum has supplanted the false vacuum of the old, symmetric phase.

A major problem with Guth’s original model was that the inflationary phase would have lasted for a very long time because the false vacuum state is such a stable one. The universe becomes trapped in the cul-de-sac of the false vacuum state and the exponential expansion never ceases. This would be somewhat analogous to water refusing to freeze even though its temperature has dropped well below 0 Centigrade. Recent modifications to the original ‘inflationary universe’ model have resulted in what is now called the ‘new’ inflationary universe model. In this model, the universe does manage to escape from the false vacuum state and evolves in a short time to the familiar true vacuum state.

We don’t really know how exactly long the inflationary phase may have lasted but the time required for the universe to double its size may have been only 10^-34 seconds. Conceivably, this inflationary period could have continued for as ‘long’ as 10^-24 seconds during which time the universe would have undergone 10 billion doublings of its size! This is a number that is truely beyond comprehension. As a comparison, only 120 doublings are required to inflate a hydrogen atom to the size of the entire visible universe! According to the inflationary model, the bubbles of the true vacuum phase expanded at the speed of light. Many of these had to collide when the universe was very young in order that the visible universe appear so uniform today. A single bubble would not have grown large enough to encompass our entire visible universe at this time; A radius of some 15-20 billion light years. On the other hand, the new inflationary model states that even the bubbles expanded in size exponentially just as their separations did. The bubbles themselves grew to enormous sizes much greater than the size of our observable universe. According to Albrecht and Steinhardt of the University of Pennsylvania, each bubble may now be 10^3000 cm in size. We should not be too concerned about these bubbles expanding at many times the speed of light since their boundaries do not represent a physical entity. There are no electrons or quarks riding some expandind shock wave. Instead, it is the non-material vacuum of space that is expanding. The expansion velocity of the bubbles is not limited by any physical speed limit like the velocity of light.

GUMs in GUTs

A potential problem for cosmologies that have phase transitions during the GUT Era is that a curious zoo of objects could be spawned if frequent bubble mergers occured as required by Guth’s inflationary model. First of all, each bubble of the true vacuum phase contains its own Higgs field having a unique orientation in space. It seems likely that no two bubbles will have their Higgs fields oriented in quite the same way so that when bubbles merge, knots will form. According to Gerhard t’Hooft and Alexander Polyakov, these knots in the Higgs field are the magnetic monopoles originally proposed 40 years ago by Paul Dirac and there ought to be about as many of these as there were bubble mergers during the transition period. Upper limits to their abundance can be set by requiring that they do not contribute to ‘closing’ the universe which means that for particles of their predicted mass (about 10^16 GeV), they must be 1 trillion trillion times less abundant than the photons in the 3 K cosmic background. Calculations based on the old inflationary model suggest that the these GUMs (Grand Unification Monopoles) may easily have been as much as 100 trillion times more abundant than the upper limit! Such a universe would definitly be ‘closed’ and moreover would have run through its entire history between expansion and recollapse within a few thousand years. The new inflationary universe model solves this ‘GUM’ overproduction problem since we are living within only one of these bubbles, now almost infinitly larger than our visible universe. Since bubble collisions are no longer required to homogenize the matter and radiation in the universe, very few, if any, monopoles would exist within our visible universe.


A prolonged period of inflation would have had an important influence on the cosmic fireball radiation. One long-standing problem in modern cosmology has been that all directions in the sky have the same temperature to an astonishing 1 part in 10,000. When we consider that regions separated by only a few degrees in the sky have only recently been in communication with one another, it is hard to understand how regions farther apart than this could be so similar in temperature. The radiation from one of these regions, traveling at the velocity of light, has not yet made it across the intervening distance to the other, even though the radiation may have started on its way since the universe first came into existence. This ‘communication gap’ would prevent these regions from ironing-out their temperature differences.

With the standard, Big Bang model, as we look back to earlier epochs from the present time, the separations between particles decrease more slowly than their horizons are shrinking. Neighboring regions of space at the present time, become disconnected so temperature differences are free to develope. Eventually, as we look back to very ancient times, the horizons are so small that every particle existing then literally fills the entire volume of its own, observable universe. Imagine a universe where you occupy all of the available space! Prior to the development of the inflationary models, cosmologists were forced to imagine an incredably well-ordered initial state where each of these disconnected domains (some 10^86 in number) had nearly identical properties such as temperature. Any departure from this situation at that time would have grown to sizable temperature differences in widely separated parts of the sky at the present time. Unfortunately, some agency would have to set-up these finely-tuned initial conditions by violating causality. The contradiction is that no force may operate by transmitting its influence faster than the speed of light. In the inflationary models, this contradiction is eliminated because the separation between widely scattered points in space becomes almost infinitly small compared to the size of the horizons as we look back to the epoc of inflation. Since these points are now within each others light horizons, any temperature difference would have been eliminated immediatly since hotter regions would now be in radiative contact with colder ones. With this exponentially-growing, de Sitter phase in the universe’s early history we now have a means for resolving the horizon problem.

Instant Flat Space

Because of the exponential growth of the universe during the GUT Era, its size may well be essentially infinite for all ‘practical’ purposes . Estimates by Albrecht and Steinhardt suggest that each bubble region may have grown to a size of 10^3000 cm by the end of the inflationary period. Consequently, the new inflationary model predicts that the content of the universe must be almost exactly the ‘critical mass’ since the sizes of each of these bubble regions are almost infinite in extent. The universe is, for all conceivable observations, exactly Euclidean (infinite and flat in geometry) and destined to expand for all eternity to come. Since we have only detected at most 10 percent of the critical mass in the form of luminous matter, this suggests that 10 times as much matter exists in our universe than is currently detectable. Of course, if the universe is essentially infinite this raises the ghastly spectre of the eventual annihilation of all organic and inorganic matter some 10^32 years from now because of proton decay.

In spite of its many apparent successes, even the new inflationary universe model is not without its problems. Although it does seem to provide explainations for several cosmological enigmas, it does not provide a convincing way to create galaxies. Those fluctuations in the density of matter that do survive the inflationary period are so dense that they eventually collapse into galaxy-sized blackholes! Neither the precise way in which the transition to ordinary Hubbel expansion occurs nor the duration of the inflationary period are well determined.

If the inflationary cosmologies can be made to answer each of these issues satisfactorily we may have, as J. Richard Gott III has suggested, a most remarkable model of the universe where an almost infinite number of ‘bubble universes’ each having nearly infinite size, coexist in the same 4-dimensional spacetime; all of these bubble universes having been brought into existence at the same instant of creation. This is less troublesome than one might suspect since, if our universe is actually infinite as the available data suggests, so too was it infinite even at its moment of birth! It is even conceivable that the universe is ‘percolating’ with new bubble universes continually coming into existence. Our entire visible universe, out to the most distant quasar, would be but one infinitessimal patch within one of these bubble regions. Do these other universes have galaxies, stars, planets and living creatures statistically similar to those in our universe? We may never know. These other universes, born of the same paroxicism of Creation as our own, are forever beyond our scrutiny but obviously not our imaginations!

Beyond The Beginning…

Finally, what of the period before Grand Unification? We may surmise that at higher temperatures than the GUT Era, even the supermassive Higgs and Leptoquark bosons become massless and at long last we arrive at a time when the gravitational interaction is united with the weak, electromagnetic and strong forces. Yet, our quest for an understanding of the origins of the universe remains incomplete since gravity has yet to be brought into unity with the remaining forces on a theoretical basis. This last step promises to be not only the most difficult one to take on the long road to unification but also appears to hold the greatest promise for shedding light on some of the most profound mysteries of the physical world. Even now, a handful of theorists around the world are hard at work on a theory called Supergravity which unites the force carriers (photons, gluons, gravitons and the weak interaction bosons) with the particles that they act on (quarks, electrons etc). Supergravity theory also predicts the existence of new particles called photinos and gravitinos. There is even some speculation that the photinos may fill the entire universe and account for the unseen ‘missing’ matter that is necessary to give the universe the critical mass required to make it exactly Euclidean. The gravitinos, on the other hand, prevent calculations involving the exchange of gravitons from giving infinite answers for problems where the answers are known to be perfectly finite. Hitherto, these calculations did not include the affects of the gravitinos.

Perhaps during the next decade, more of the details of the last stage of Unification will be hammered out at which time the entire story of the birth of our universe can be told. This is, indeed, an exciting time to be living through in human history. Will future generations forever envy us our good fortune, to have witnessed in our lifetimes the unfolding of the first comprehensive theory of Existence?

The End of Physics?

For 45 years I have followed the great pageant of ideas in theoretical physics. From high school through retirement, although my career and expertise is in astronomy and astrophysics, my passion has always been in following the glorious ideas that have swirled around in theoretical physics. I watched as the quark theory of the 1960s gave way to Grand Unification Theory in the 1970s, and then to string theory and inflationary cosmology in the 1980s. I was thrilled by how these ideas could be applied to understanding the earliest moments in the Big Bang and perhaps let me catch at least a mathematical glimpse of how the universe, time and space came to be literally out of Nothing; explanations not forthcoming from within Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Even as recently as 2012 this story continued to captivate me even as I grappled with what might be the premature end of my life at the hands of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma diagnosed in 2008. And still I read the journal articles, watching as new ideas emerged, built upon the theoretical successes of the 1990s and beyond. But then a strange thing happened.

In the 1980s, the US embarked on the construction in Texas of the Superconducting Super Collider, but that project was scrapped and de-funded by Congress after ¼ of it had been built. Attention then turned to the European Large Hadron Collider project, which after 10 years finally achieved its first collisions in 2009. The energy of this accelerator has steadily been increased to 13 TeV, and now records some 600 million collisions per second, which generates 30 petabytes of data per year. Among these collisions were expected to be the traces of ‘new physics’, and physicists were not dissappointed. In 2012 the elusive Higgs Boson was detected some 50 years after it was predicted to exist. It was a major discovery that signaled we were definitely on the right track in verifying the Standard Model. But since then, following many more years of searching among the debris of trillions of collisions, all we continue to see are the successful predictions of the Standard Model confirmed again and again with only a few caveats.

Typically, physicists push experiments to ever-higher degrees of accuracy to uncover where our current theoretical model predictions are becoming thread-bare, revealing signs of new phenomena or particles, hence the term ‘new physics’. Theoreticians then use this anomalous data to extend known ideas into a larger arena, and always select new ideas that are the simplest-possible extensions of the older ideas. But sometimes you have to incorporate entirely new ideas. This happened when Einstein developed relativity, which was a ‘beautiful’ extension of the older and simpler Newtonian Physics. Ultimately it is the data that leads the way, and if not available, we get to argue over whose theory is more mathematically beautiful or elegant.

Today we have one such elegant contender for extending the Standard Model that involves a new symmetry in Nature called supersymmetry. Discovered mathematically in the mid-1970s, it showed how the particles in the Standard Model that account for matter (quarks, electrons) are related to the force-carrying particles (e.g. photons, gluons), but also offered an integrated role for gravity as a new kind of force-particle. The hitch was that to make the mathematics work so that it did not answer ‘infinity’ every time you did a calculation, you had to add a whole new family of super-heavy particles to the list of elementary particles. Many versions of ‘Minimally Supersymmetric Standard Models’ or MSSM’s were possible, but most agreed that starting at a mass of about 1000 times that of a proton (1 TeV), you would start to see the smallest of these particles as ‘low-hanging fruit’, like the tip of an upside-down pyramid.

For the last seven years of LHC operation, using a variety of techniques and sophisticated detectors, absolutely no sign of supersymmetry has yet to be found. In April, 2017 at the Moriond Conference, physicists with the ATLAS Experiment at CERN presented their first results examining the combined 2015 – 2016 LHC data. This new dataset was almost three times larger than what was available at the last major particle physics conference held in 2016. Searches for the supersymmetric partners to quarks and gluons (called squarks and gluinos) turned up nothing below a mass of 2 TeV. There was no evidence for exotic supersymmetric matter at masses below 6 TeV, and no heavy partner to the W-boson was found below 5 TeV.

Perhaps the worst result for me as an astronomer is for dark matter. The MSSM model, the simplest extension of the Standard Model with supersymmetry, predicted the existence of several very low mass particles called neutralinos. When added to cosmological models, neutralinos seem to account for the existence of dark matter, which occupies 27% of the gravitating stuff in the universe and controls the movement of ordinary matter as it forms galaxies and stars. MSSM gives astronomers a tidy way to explain dark matter and closes the book on what it is likely to be. Unfortunately the LHC has found no evidence for light-weight neutralinos at their expected MSSM mass ranges. (see for example https://arxiv.org/abs/1608.00872 or https://arxiv.org/abs/1605.04608)

Of course the searches will continue as the LHC remains our best tool for exploring these energies well into the 2030s. But if past is prologue, the news isn’t very promising. Typically the greatest discoveries of any new technology are made within the first decade of operation. The LHC is well on its way to ending its first decade with ‘only’ the Higgs boson as a prize. It was fully intended that the LHC would have given us hard evidence by now for literally dozens of new super-heavy particles, and a definitive candidate for dark matter to clean up the cosmological inventory.

So this is my reason for feeling sad. If the Higgs boson is a guide, it may take us several more decades and a whole new and expensive LHC replacement to find something significant to affirm our current ‘beautiful’ ideas about the physical nature of the universe. Supersymmetry may still play a role in this but it will be hard to attract a new generation of young physicists to its search if Nature continues to withhold so much as a hint we are on the right theoretical track.

If supersymmetry falls string theory, which hinges on supersymmetry, may also have to be put aside or re-thought. Nature seems to favor simple theories over complex ones so are the current string theories with supersymmetry really the simplest ones?

Thousands of physicists have toiled over these ideas since the 1970s. In the past, such a herculean effort usually won-out with Nature rewarding the tedious intellectual work, and some vestiges of the effort being salvaged for the new theory. I find it hard to believe that will not again be the case this time, but as I prepare for retirement I am realizing that I may not be around to see this final vindication.

So what should I make of my 45-year intellectual obsession to keep up with this research? Given what I know today would I have done things differently? Would I have taught fewer classes on this subject, or written fewer articles for popular science magazines?

Absolutely not!

I have thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of the new ideas about matter, space, time and dimension. The Multiverse idea offered me a new way of experiencing my place in ‘reality’. I could never have invented these amazing ideas on my own, which have entertained me for most of my professional life. Even today’s Nature seems to have handed us something new: Gravity waves have been detected after a 60-year search; detailed studies of the cosmic ‘fireball’ radiation are giving us hints to the earliest moments in the Big Bang; and of course we have discovered THOUSANDS of new planets.

Living in this new world seems almost as intellectually stimulating, and now offer me more immediate returns on my investment in the years remaining.

The Particle Desert

For the last 100 years physicists have built exotic “atom smashers” to probe the innermost constituents of matter. Along the way they created a breathtakingly elegant mathematical theory called the Standard Model that seems to explain all of the physics we see at the atomic scale. It describes how a collection of twelve fundamental matter particles (electrons, quarks neutrinos etc) generate three fundamental forces in Nature, and how these forces are related to twelve other particles called the gauge bosons. A final 25th particle, the Higgs boson, rounds out the ensemble and embues some of the 24 particles with that mystical property we call mass.

During all this time, teams of physicists working in the “data dumps” of billion-dollar colliders have sifted through terabytes of information to refine the accuracy of the Standard Model and compare its predictions with the real world. The predictions always seemed to match reality and push the testing of the Standard Model to still higher energies. But at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, among the trillions of interactions studied up to energies of 13,000 GeV, no new physics has been seen in the furthest decimal points of the Standard Model predictions since 2012; not so much as a hint that something else has to be added to bring it back in line with actual data. It is a theory that appears not to be broken at energies over 1000 times higher than it was designed for!

In the history of all previous colliders beginning in the 1950s, something new has always been found to move the development of physic’s explanatory capabilities forward. In the 1970s it was the discovery of quarks. In the 1980s it was the W and Z0 particles, and even recently in 2012 it was the Higgs boson. All these particles were found below an energy of 200 GeV. But now, as the LHC has spent the last year at 13,000 GeV, a desperate mood has set in. No new particles or forces have been discovered in this new energy landscape.

Nada. Nothing. Zippo.

Most of the theories that go beyond the Standard Model provide ways to unify the strong force with the electromagnetic and weak forces. At some very high energy, they say, all three forces have the same strength, unlike their present circumstance where the strong nuclear force is 100 times as strong as the electromagnetic force. The predicted energy where this unification happens is about 1000 trillion GeV — the so-called grand unification theory (GUT) energy.

According to popular supersymmetry theory calculations, there should be a large population of new particles above an energy of 1000 GeV. Each a partner to the known 25 particles, but far more massive. Some of these particles, such as the neutralino, are even candidates for dark matter! Above the masses of these new supersymmetry particles, however, there ought to be no new particles to discover from perhaps 100, 000 GeV to the GUT energy of 1000 trillion GeV. They say that without this energy desert, any particles there would cause the proton to decay much faster than current limits predict.

So although it is a frustrating prospect that no new particles may exist in this desert, this is a vital feature of our physical world that literally prevents all matter (protons) from disintegrating! But unlike the Sahara Desert, where we can at least drive through it to get to a different world beyond, there are apparently no easily reachable oases of new particles along the way to which physicists can target new generations of expensive colliders.

It remains to be seen whether the results from the Large Hadron Collider after 2016 will confirm our greatest hopes or validate our worst fears. Either way, stay tuned for some exciting news headlines!


Return here on Thursday, February 9 for my next blog!


Running on Empty

I don’t think that many people realize that right now, but a few miles north of Geneva, Switzerland and a few hundred meters below the sleepy, bucolic countryside, a leviathan machine 27 km in diameter works round-the-clock to recreate a glimpse of the Big Bang.

Called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) it is the world’s largest particle collider created in 1998-2008 by a collaboration of over 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries. It cost $13 billion dollars, and consumes 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year; enough to run a city of 300,000 homes!

The aim of the LHC is to allow physicists to test the predictions of different theories of particle physics, including measuring the properties of the Higgs boson and searching for the large family of new particles predicted by supersymmetric theories, as well as other unsolved questions of physics.

Since it began full-power operation in 2009, it has made a series of major discoveries that have rocked the physics world. The first of these, some 50 years after its prediction, was the discovery in 2012 of the Higgs Boson; a missing particle in the Standard Model that imbues most particles with their masses. Two years later, two new heavy sub-atomic particles were discovered called the Xi-prime and the Xi-star. Each consists of a bottom-quark, a down-quark and a strange-quark. Then a four-quark particle called the Z(4430) was found in 2014, along with signs of a five-quark combination that decayed into other, more stable particles. By 2016, LHC physicists had detected the light from antimatter hydrogen atoms (an anti-proton orbited by a positron). The findings were that this light was exactly the same as from a normal-matter hydrogen atom, so you really can’t tell the difference between matter and anti-matter from the light it emits!

But there was one other search going on that hasn’t been quite as successful, and with serious consequences.
Since 1978, physicists have explored the mathematical wonders of a new symmetry in nature called supersymmetry. This one shows how the particles that carry forces in the Standard Model (photons, gluons, w-bosons) are related to the matter particles they interact with (electrons, neutrinos, quarks). This symmetry unifies all of the known particles in the Standard Model, and also predicts that all normal particles will have supersymmetry partners with far-higher masses. The electron has a partner called the slectron. The quark has a partner called the squark, and so on. The simplest change in the Standard Model that includes this new mathematical symmetry ( called the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model or MSSM) adds 12 new matter particles and 12 new force particles beginning at masses that are 3 times greater than the mass of the normal proton. Amazingly, one of these partners to the normal-matter neutrinos would exactly fit the bill for the dark matter that astronomers have detected across the universe! MSSM predicts the eventual unification of all three forces; electromagnetism, strong and weak. MSSM would also let us accurately predict what happened before the universe was a microsecond old after the Big Bang!

Unfortunately, the search for any signs of supersymmetry particles is not going so well after seven years of sifting through data.

In one strategy, physicists look for any signs that the predictions made by the Standard Model are not accurate as a sign of New Physics. In another strategy, physicists look for the specific signs of the decays of these new, massive particles into the familiar matter particles.

On 8 November 2012, physicists reported on an experiment seen as a “golden” test of supersymmetry by measuring the very rare decay of the Bs meson into two muons. Disconcertingly, the results matched those predicted by the Standard Model rather than the predictions of many alternate versions of the Standard Model with supersymmetry included. New data with the collider now operating at higher energies than ever before, 13 trillion electron volts; 13 TeV) show no traces of superpartners.

As of the start of 2017, it really does look as though the LHC has given us a complete and well-tested Standard Model including the Higgs Boson, but has refused to hand over any signs of new particles existing between 190 GeV and 2,500 GeV (see the predicted particle plot below). This represents a distressing, barren desert which, had it looked as supersymmetry had predicted, should have been filled with dozens of new particles never before seen.

Many physicists are adopting an attitude of “keep calm and carry on.” “I am not yet particularly worried,” says theoretical physicist Carlos Wagner of the University of Chicago. “I think it’s too early. We just started this process.” The LHC has delivered only 1 percent of the data it will collect over its lifetime. But if no firm evidence is found for supersymmetry with the LHC, that also spells the end of another marvelous, mathematical theory that proposes to also unify gravity with the Standard Model. You know this theory by its popular name String Theory.

So a lot is still to come with the LHC in the next 5 years, and in no way is the current machine ‘running on empty’! Even its failure to find new physics will be revolutionary in its own right, and force an exciting re-boot of the entire theoretical approach in physics during the 2020s and beyond.

Check back here on Thursday, January 26 for the next blog!

Cancer and Cosmology

For the treatment of my particular cancer, small B-cell follicular non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, I will soon be starting a 6-month course of infusions of Rituximab and Bendamustine. The biology of these miracle drugs seems to be very solid and logically sound. This one-two chemical punch to my lymphatic system will use targeted antibodies to bind with the CD20 receptor on the cancerous B-cells. This will set in motion several cellular mechanisms that will kill the cells. First, the antibody bound to the CD20 receptor attracts T-cells in the immune system to treat the cancerous B-cell as an invader. Thus begins my immune system’s process of killing the invader. The antibody also triggers a reaction in the cell to commit suicide called apoptosis. Even better, Rituximab does not set in motion the process to kill normal B-cells!

The promise is that my many enlarged lymph nodes chock-a-block with the cancerous B-cells will be dramatically reduced in size to near-normal levels as they are depopulated of the cancerous cells. So why do some patients not all show the same dramatic reductions? About 70% respond to this therapy to various degrees while 10% do not. Why, given the impeccable logic of the process, aren’t the response rates closer to 100%?

Meanwhile, in high-energy physics, supersymmetry is a deeply beautiful and lynch-pin mathematical principle upon which the next generations of theories about matter and gravity are based. By adding a teaspoon of it to the Standard Model, which currently accounts in great mathematical detail for all known particles and forces, supersymmetry provides an elegant way to explore an even larger universe that includes dark matter, unifying all natural forces, and explaining many of the existing mysteries not answered by the Standard Model.
Called the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model (MSSM), Nature consistently rewards the simplest explanations for physical phenomena, so why has there been absolutely no sign of supersymmetry at the energies predicted by MSSM, and being explored by the CERN Large Hadron Collider?

In both cases, I have a huge personal interest in these logically compelling strategies and ideas: One to literally save my life, and the other to save the intellectual integrity of the physical world I have so deeply explored as an astronomer during my entire 40 year career. In each case, the logic seems to be flawless, and it is hard to see how Nature would not avail itself of these simple and elegant solutions with high fidelity. But for some reason it chooses not to do so. Rituximab works only imperfectly, while supersymmetry seems an un-tapped logical property of the world.

So what’s going on here?

In physics, we deal with dumb matter locked into simple systems controlled by forces that can be specified with high mathematical accuracy. The fly in the ointment is that, although huge collections of matter on the astronomical scale follow one set of well-known laws first discovered by Sir Isaac Newton and others, at the atomic scale we have another set of laws that operate on individual elementary particles like electrons and photons. This is still not actually a problem, and thanks to some intense mathematical reasoning and remarkable experiments carried out between 1920 and 1980, our Standard Model is a huge success. One of the last hold-outs in this model was the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012, some 50 years after its existence was predicted! But as good as the Standard Model is, there seem to be many loose ends that are like red flags to the inquiring human mind.

One major loose end is that astronomers have discovered what is popularly called ‘dark matter’, and there is no known particle or force in the Standard Model to account for it. Supersymmetry answers the question, why does nature have two families of particles when one would be even simpler? Amazingly, and elegantly, supersymmetry answers this question by showing how electrons, and quarks, which are elementary matter particles, are related to photons and gluons, which are elementary force-carrying particles. But in beautifully unifying the particles and forces, it also offers up a new family of particles, the lightest of which would fit the bill as missing dark matter particles!

This is why physicists are desperately trying to verify supersymmetry, not only to simplify physics, but to explain dark matter on the cosmological scale. As an astronomer, I am rooting for supersymmetry because I do not like the idea that 80% of the gravitating stuff in the universe is not stars and dust, but inscrutable dark matter. Nature seems not to want to offer us this simple option that dark matter is produced by ‘supersymmetric neutralinos’. But apparently Nature may have another solution in mind that we have yet to stumble upon. Time will tell, but it will not be for my generation to discover.

On the cancer-side of the equation, biological systems are gears-within-gears in a plethora of processes and influences. A logically simple idea like the Rituximab treatment looks compelling if you do not look too closely at what the rest of the cancerous B-cells are doing, or how well they like being glommed onto by a monoclonal antibody like Rituximab. No two individuals apparently have the same B-cell surfaces, or the same lymphatic ecology in a nearly-infinite set of genetic permutations, so a direct chemical hit by a Rituximab antibody to one cancerous B-cell may be only a glancing blow to another. This is why I am also rooting for my upcoming Rituximab treatments to be a whopping success. Like supersymmetry, it sure would simplify my life!

The bottom line seems to be that, although our mathematical and logical ideas seem elegant, they are never complete. It is this incompleteness that defeats us, sometimes by literally killing us and sometimes by making our entire careers run through dark forests for decades before stumbling into the light.


Check back here on Wednesday, December 28 for the next installment!

Rainbow image credit: Daily Mail: UK