Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Where were we?

Last time this blog was active, particle physics was entering a sharp curve. That the infamous 750 GeV resonance had petered out was not a big deal in itself - one expects these things to happen every now and then.  But the lack of any new physics at the LHC when it had already collected a significant chunk of data was a reason to worry. We know that we don't know everything yet about the fundamental interactions, and that there is a deeper layer of reality that needs to be uncovered (at least to explain dark matter, neutrino masses, baryogenesis, inflation, and physics at energies above the Planck scale). For a hundred years, increasing the energy of particle collisions has been the best way to increase our understanding of the basic constituents of nature. However, with nothing at the LHC and the next higher energy collider decades away, a feeling was growing that the progress might stall.

In this respect, nothing much has changed during the time when the blog was dormant, except that these sentiments are now firmly established. Crisis is no longer a whispered word, but it's openly discussed in corridors, on blogs, on arXiv, and in color magazines.  The clear message from the LHC is that the dominant paradigms about the physics at the weak scale were completely misguided. The Standard Model seems to be a perfect effective theory at least up to a few TeV, and there is no indication at what energy scale new particles have to show up. While everyone goes through the five stages of grief at their own pace, my impression is that most are already well past the denial. The open question is what should be the next steps to make sure that exploration of fundamental interactions will not halt. 

One possible reaction to a crisis is more of the same.  Historically, such an approach has often been efficient, for example it worked for a long time in the case of the Soviet economy. In our case one could easily go on with more models, more epicycles, more parameter space,  more speculations.  But the driving force for all these SusyWarpedCompositeStringBlackHairyHole enterprise has always been the (small but still) possibility of being vindicated by the LHC. Without serious prospects of experimental verification, model building is reduced to intellectual gymnastics that can hardly stir imagination.  Thus the business-as-usual is not an option in the long run: it couldn't elicit any enthusiasm among the physicists or the public,  it wouldn't attract new bright students, and thus it would be a straight path to irrelevance.

So, particle physics has to change. On the experimental side we will inevitably see, just for economical reasons, less focus on high-energy colliders and more on smaller experiments. Theoretical particle physics will also have to evolve to remain relevant.  Certainly, the emphasis needs to be shifted away from empty speculations in favor of more solid research. I don't pretend to know all the answers or have a clear vision of the optimal strategy, but I see three promising directions.

One is astrophysics where there are much better prospects of experimental progress.  The cosmos is a natural collider that is constantly testing fundamental interactions independently of current fashions or funding agencies.  This gives us an opportunity to learn more  about dark matter and neutrinos, and also about various hypothetical particles like axions or milli-charged matter. The most recent story of the 21cm absorption signal shows that there are still treasure troves of data waiting for us out there. Moreover, new observational windows keep opening up, as recently illustrated by the nascent gravitational wave astronomy. This avenue is of course a non-brainer, already explored since a long time by particle theorists, but I expect it will further gain in importance in the coming years. 

Another direction is precision physics. This, also, has been an integral part of particle physics research for quite some time, but it should grow in relevance. The point is that one can probe very heavy particles, often beyond the reach of present colliders,  by precisely measuring low-energy observables. In the most spectacular example, studying proton decay may give insight into new particles with masses of order 10^16 GeV - unlikely to be ever attainable directly. There is a whole array of observables that can probe new physics well beyond the direct LHC reach: a myriad of rare flavor processes, electric dipole moments of the electron and neutron, atomic parity violation, neutrino scattering,  and so on. This road may be long and tedious but it is bound to succeed: at some point some experiment somewhere must observe a phenomenon that does not fit into the Standard Model. If we're very lucky, it  may be that the anomalies currently observed by the LHCb in certain rare B-meson decays are already the first harbingers of a breakdown of the Standard Model at higher energies.

Finally, I should mention formal theoretical developments. The naturalness problem of the cosmological constant and of the Higgs mass may suggest some fundamental misunderstanding of quantum field theory on our part. Perhaps this should not be too surprising.  In many ways we have reached an amazing proficiency in QFT when applied to certain precision observables or even to LHC processes. Yet at the same time QFT is often used and taught in the same way as magic in Hogwarts: mechanically,  blindly following prescriptions from old dusty books, without a deeper understanding of the sense and meaning.  Recent years have seen a brisk development of alternative approaches: a revival of the old S-matrix techniques, new amplitude calculation methods based on recursion relations, but also complete reformulations of the QFT basics demoting the sacred cows like fields, Lagrangians, and gauge symmetry. Theory alone rarely leads to progress, but it may help to make more sense of the data we already have. Could better understanding or complete reformulating of QFT bring new answers to the old questions? I think that is  not impossible. 

All in all, there are good reasons to worry, but also tons of new data in store and lots of fascinating questions to answer.  How will the B-meson anomalies pan out? What shall we do after we hit the neutrino floor? Will the 21cm observations allow us to understand what dark matter is? Will China build a 100 TeV collider? Or maybe a radio telescope on the Moon instead?  Are experimentalists still needed now that we have machine learning? How will physics change with the centre of gravity moving to Asia?  I will tell you my take on such and other questions and  highlight old and new ideas that could help us understand the nature better.  Let's see how far I'll get this time ;)

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Weekend Plot: update on WIMPs

There's been a lot of discussion on this blog about the LHC not finding new physics.  I should however give justice to other experiments that also don't find new physics, often in a spectacular way. One area where this is happening is direct detection of WIMP dark matter. This weekend plot summarizes the current limits on the spin-independent scattering cross-section of dark matter particles on nucleons:
For large WIMP masses, currently the most succesful detection technology is to fill up a tank with a ton of liquid xenon and wait for a passing dark matter particle to knock one of the nuclei. Recently, we have had updates from two such experiments: LUX in the US, and PandaX in China, whose limits now cut below zeptobarn cross sections (1 zb = 10^-9 pb = 10^-45 cm^2). These two experiments are currently going head-to-head, but  Panda, being larger, will ultimately overtake LUX.  Soon, however,  it'll have to face a new fierce competitor: the XENON1T experiment, and the plot will have to be updated next year.  Fortunately, we won't need to be learning another prefix soon. Once yoctobarn sensitivity is achieved by the experiments, we will hit the neutrino floor:  the non-reducible background from solar and atmospheric neutrinos (gray area at the bottom of the plot). This will make detecting a dark matter signal much more challenging, and will certainly slow down the progress for WIMP masses larger than ~5 GeV. For lower masses,  the distance to the floor remains large. Xenon detectors lose their steam there, and another technology is needed, like germanium detectors of CDMS and CDEX, or CaWO4 crystals of CRESST. Also on this front important progress is expected soon.

What does the theory say about when we will find dark matter? It is perfectly viable that the discovery is waiting for us just behind the corner in the remaining space above the neutrino floor, but currently there's no strong theoretical hints in favor of that possibility. Usually, dark matter experiments advertise that they're just beginning to explore the interesting parameter space predicted by theory models.This is not quite correct.  If the WIMP were true to its name, that is to say if it was interacting via the weak force (meaning, coupled to Z with order 1 strength), it would have order 10 fb scattering cross section on neutrons. Unfortunately, that natural possibility was excluded in the previous century. Years of experimental progress have shown that the WIMPs, if they exist, must be interacting super-weakly with matter. For example, for a 100 GeV fermionic dark matter with the vector coupling g to the Z boson, the current limits imply g ≲ 10^-4. The coupling can be larger if the Higgs boson is the mediator of interactions between the dark and visible worlds, as the Higgs already couples very weakly to nucleons. This construction is, arguably, the most plausible one currently probed by direct detection experiments.  For a scalar dark matter particle X with mass 0.1-1 TeV  coupled to the Higgs via the interaction  λ v h |X|^2 the experiments are currently probing the coupling λ in the 0.01-1 ballpark. In general, there's no theoretical lower limit on the dark matter coupling to nucleons. Nevertheless, the weak coupling implied by direct detection limits creates some tension for the thermal production paradigm, which requires a weak (that is order picobarn) annihilation cross section for dark matter particles. This tension needs to be resolved by more complicated model building,  e.g. by arranging for resonant annihilation or for co-annihilation.    

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Next stop: tth

This was a summer of brutally dashed hopes for a quick discovery of many fundamental particles that we were imagining. For the time being we need  to focus on the ones that actually exist, such as the Higgs boson. In the Run-1 of the LHC, the Higgs existence and identity were firmly established,  while its mass and basic properties were measured. The signal was observed with large significance in 4 different decay channels (γγ, ZZ*, WW*, ττ), and two different production modes (gluon fusion, vector-boson fusion) have been isolated.  Still, there remains many fine details to sort out. The realistic goal for the Run-2 is to pinpoint the following Higgs processes:
  • (h→bb): Decays to b-quarks.
  • (Vh): Associated production with W or Z boson. 
  • (tth): Associated production with top quarks. 

It seems that the last objective may be achieved quicker than expected. The tth production process is very interesting theoretically, because its rate is proportional to the (square of the) Yukawa coupling between the Higgs boson and top quarks. Within the Standard Model, the value of this parameter is known to a good accuracy, as it is related to the mass of the top quark. But that relation can be  disrupted in models beyond the Standard Model, with the two-Higgs-doublet model and composite/little Higgs models serving as prominent examples. Thus, measurements of the top Yukawa coupling will provide a crucial piece of information about new physics.

In the Run-1, a not-so-small signal of tth production was observed by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations in several channels. Assuming that Higgs decays have the same branching fraction as in the Standard Model, the tth signal strength normalized to the Standard Model prediction was estimated as

At face value, a strong evidence for the tth production was obtained in the Run-1! This fact was not advertised by the collaborations because the measurement is not clean due to a large number of top quarks produced by other processes at the LHC. The tth signal is thus a small blip on top of a huge background, and it's not excluded that some unaccounted for systematic errors are skewing the measurements. The collaborations thus preferred to play it safe, and wait for more data to be collected.

In the Run-2 with 13 TeV collisions the tth production cross section is 4-times larger than in the Run-1, therefore the new data are coming at a fast pace. Both ATLAS and CMS presented their first Higgs results in early August, and the tth signal is only getting stronger.  ATLAS showed their measurements in the γγ, WW/ττ, and bb final states of Higgs decay, as well as their combination:
Most channels display a signal-like excess, which is reflected by the Run-2 combination being 2.5 sigma away from zero. A similar picture is emerging in CMS, with 2-sigma signals in the γγ and WW/ττ channels. Naively combining all Run-1 and and Run-2 results one then finds
At face value, this is a discovery! Of course, this number should be treated with some caution because, due to large systematic errors, a naive Gaussian combination may not represent very well the true likelihood. Nevertheless, it indicates that, if all goes well, the discovery of the tth production mode should be officially announced in the near future, maybe even this year.

Should we get excited that the measured tth rate is significantly larger than Standard Model one? Assuming  that the current central value remains, it would mean that  the top Yukawa coupling is 40% larger than that predicted by the Standard Model. This is not impossible, but very unlikely in practice. The reason is that the top Yukawa coupling also controls the gluon fusion - the main Higgs production channel at the LHC - whose rate is measured to be in perfect agreement with the Standard Model.  Therefore, a realistic model that explains the large tth rate would also have to provide negative contributions to the gluon fusion amplitude, so as to cancel the effect of the large top Yukawa coupling. It is possible to engineer such a cancellation in concrete models, but  I'm not aware of any construction where this conspiracy arises in a natural way. Most likely, the currently observed excess is  a statistical fluctuation (possibly in combination with  underestimated theoretical and/or  experimental errors), and the central value will drift toward μ=1 as more data is collected. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

After the hangover

The loss of the 750 GeV diphoton resonance is a big blow to the particle physics community. We are currently going through the 5 stages of grief, everyone at their own pace, as can be seen e.g. in this comments section. Nevertheless, it may already be a good moment to revisit the story one last time, so as  to understand what went wrong.

In the recent years, physics beyond the Standard Model has seen 2 other flops of comparable impact: the faster-than-light neutrinos in OPERA, and the CMB tensor fluctuations in BICEP.  Much as the diphoton signal, both of the above triggered a binge of theoretical explanations, followed by a massive hangover. There was one big difference, however: the OPERA and BICEP signals were due to embarrassing errors on the experiments' side. This doesn't seem to be the case for the diphoton bump at the LHC. Some may wonder whether the Standard Model background may have been slightly underestimated,  or whether one experiment may have been biased by the result of the other... But, most likely, the 750 GeV bump was just due to a random fluctuation of the background at this particular energy. Regrettably, the resulting mess cannot be blamed on experimentalists, who were in fact downplaying the anomaly in their official communications. This time it's the theorists who  have some explaining to do.

Why did theorists write 500 papers about a statistical fluctuation?  One reason is that it didn't look like one at first sight. Back in December 2015, the local significance of the diphoton  bump in ATLAS run-2 data was 3.9 sigma, which means the probability of such a fluctuation was 1 in 10000. Combining available run-1 and run-2 diphoton data in ATLAS and CMS, the local significance was increased to 4.4 sigma.  All in all, it was a very unusual excess, a 1-in-100000 occurrence! Of course, this number should be interpreted with care. The point is that the LHC experiments perform gazillion different measurements, thus they are bound to observe seemingly unlikely outcomes in a small fraction of them. This can be partly taken into account by calculating the global significance, which is the probability of finding a background fluctuation of the observed size anywhere in the diphoton spectrum. The global significance of the 750 GeV bump quoted by ATLAS was only about two sigma, the fact strongly emphasized by the collaboration.  However, that number can be misleading too.  One problem with the global significance is that, unlike for the local one, it cannot be  easily combined in the presence of separate measurements of the same observable. For the diphoton final state we  have ATLAS and CMS measurements in run-1 and run-2,  thus 4 independent datasets, and their robust concordance was crucial  in creating the excitement.  Note also that what is really relevant here is the probability of a fluctuation of a given size in any of the  LHC measurement, and that is not captured by the global significance.  For these reasons, I find it more transparent work with the local significance, remembering that it should not be interpreted as the probability that the Standard Model is incorrect. By these standards, a 4.4 sigma fluctuation in a combined ATLAS and CMS dataset is still a very significant effect which deserves a special attention. What we learned the hard way is that such large fluctuations do happen at the LHC...   This lesson will certainly be taken into account next time we encounter a significant anomaly.

Another reason why the 750 GeV bump was exciting is that the measurement is rather straightforward.  Indeed, at the LHC we often see anomalies in complicated final states or poorly controlled differential distributions, and we treat those with much skepticism.  But a resonance in the diphoton spectrum is almost the simplest and cleanest observable that one can imagine (only a dilepton or 4-lepton resonance would be cleaner). We already successfully discovered one particle this way - that's how the Higgs boson first showed up in 2011. Thus, we have good reasons to believe that the collaborations control this measurement very well.

Finally, the diphoton bump was so attractive because theoretical explanations were  plausible.  It was trivial to write down a model fitting the data, there was no need to stretch or fine-tune the parameters, and it was quite natural that the particle first showed in as a diphoton resonance and not in other final states. This is in stark contrast to other recent anomalies which typically require a great deal of gymnastics to fit into a consistent picture.   The only thing to give you a pause was the tension with the LHC run-1 diphoton data, but even that became  mild after the Moriond update this year.

So we got a huge signal of a new particle in a clean channel with plausible theoretic models to explain it...  that was a really bad luck.  My conclusion may not be shared by everyone but I don't think that the theory community committed major missteps  in this case.  Given that for 30 years we have been looking for a clue about the fundamental theory beyond the Standard Model, our reaction was not disproportionate once a seemingly reliable one had arrived.  Excitement is an inherent part of physics research. And so is disappointment, apparently.

There remains a question whether we really needed 500 papers...   Well, of course not: many of  them fill an important gap.  Yet many are an interesting read, and I personally learned a lot of exciting physics from them.  Actually, I suspect that the fraction of useless papers among the 500 is lower than for regular daily topics.  On a more sociological side, these papers exacerbate the problem with our citation culture (mass-grave references), which undermines the citation count as a means to evaluate the research impact.  But that is a wider issue which I don't know how to address at the moment.

Time to move on. The ICHEP conference is coming next week, with loads of brand new results based on up to 16 inverse femtobarns of 13 TeV LHC data.  Although the rumor is that there is no new exciting  anomaly at this point, it will be interesting to see how much room is left for new physics. The hope lingers on, at least until the end of this year.

In the comments section you're welcome to lash out on the entire BSM community - we made a wrong call so we deserve it. Please, however, avoid personal attacks (unless on me). Alternatively, you can also give us a hug :) 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Game of Thrones: 750 GeV edition

The 750 GeV diphoton resonance has made a big impact on theoretical particle physics. The number of papers on the topic is already legendary, and they keep coming at the rate of order 10 per week. Given that the Backović model is falsified, there's no longer a theoretical upper limit.  Does this mean we are not dealing with the classical ambulance chasing scenario? The answer may be known in the next days.

So who's leading this race?  What kind of question is that, you may shout, of course it's Strumia! And you would be wrong, independently of the metric.  For this contest, I will consider two different metrics: the King Beyond the Wall that counts the number of papers on the topic, and the Iron Throne that counts how many times these papers have been cited.

In the first category,  the contest is much more fierce than one might expect: it takes 8 papers to be the leader, and 7 papers may not be enough to even get on the podium!  Among the 3 authors with 7 papers the final classification is decided by trial by combat the citation count.  The result is (drums):

Citations, tja...   Social dynamics of our community encourages referencing all previous work on the topic, rather than just the relevant ones, which in this particular case triggered a period of inflation. One day soon citation numbers will mean as much as authorship in experimental particle physics. But for now the size of the h-factor is still an important measure of virility for theorists. If the citation count rather the number of papers is the main criterion, the iron throne is taken by a Targaryen contender (trumpets):

This explains why the resonance is usually denoted by the letter S.

Update 09.08.2016. Now that the 750 GeV excess is officially dead, one can give the final classification. The race for the iron throne was tight till the end, but there could only be one winner:

As you can see, in this race the long-term strategy and persistence proved to be more important than pulling off a few early victories.  In the other category there have also been  changes in the final stretch: the winner added 3 papers in the period between the un-official and official announcement of the demise of the 750 GeV resonance. The final standing are:

Congratulations for all the winners.  For all the rest, wish you more luck and persistence in the next edition,  provided it will take place.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Black hole dark matter

The idea that dark matter is made of primordial black holes is very old but has always been in the backwater of particle physics. The WIMP or asymmetric dark matter paradigms are preferred for several reasons such as calculability, observational opportunities, and a more direct connection to cherished theories beyond the Standard Model. But in the recent months there has been more interest, triggered in part by the LIGO observations of black hole binary mergers. In the first observed event, the mass of each of the black holes was estimated at around 30 solar masses. While such a system may well be of boring astrophysical origin, it is somewhat unexpected because typical black holes we come across in everyday life are either a bit smaller (around one solar mass) or much larger (supermassive black hole in the galactic center). On the other hand, if the dark matter halo were made of black holes, scattering processes would sometimes create short-lived binary systems. Assuming a significant fraction of dark matter in the universe is made of primordial black holes, this paper estimated that the rate of merger processes is in the right ballpark to explain the LIGO events.

Primordial black holes can form from large density fluctuations in the early universe. On the largest observable scales the universe is incredibly homogenous, as witnessed by the uniform temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background over the entire sky. However on smaller scales the primordial inhomogeneities could be much larger without contradicting observations.  From the fundamental point of view, large density fluctuations may be generated by several distinct mechanism, for example during the final stages of inflation in the waterfall phase in the hybrid inflation scenario. While it is rather generic that this or similar process may seed black hole formation in the radiation-dominated era, severe fine-tuning is required to produce the right amount of black holes and ensure that the resulting universe resembles the one we know.

All in all, it's fair to say that the scenario where all or a significant fraction of  dark matter  is made of primordial black holes is not completely absurd. Moreover, one typically expects the masses to span a fairly narrow range. Could it be that the LIGO events is the first indirect detection of dark matter made of O(10)-solar-mass black holes? One problem with this scenario is that it is excluded, as can be seen in the plot.  Black holes sloshing through the early dense universe accrete the surrounding matter and produce X-rays which could ionize atoms and disrupt the Cosmic Microwave Background. In the 10-100 solar mass range relevant for LIGO this effect currently gives the strongest constraint on primordial black holes: according to this paper they are allowed to constitute  not more than 0.01% of the total dark matter abundance. In astrophysics, however, not only signals but also constraints should be taken with a grain of salt.  In this particular case, the word in town is that the derivation contains a numerical error and that the corrected limit is 2 orders of magnitude less severe than what's shown in the plot. Moreover, this limit strongly depends on the model of accretion, and more favorable assumptions may buy another order of magnitude or two. All in all, the possibility of dark matter made of  primordial black hole in the 10-100 solar mass range should not be completely discarded yet. Another possibility is that black holes make only a small fraction of dark matter, but the merger rate is faster, closer to the estimate of this paper.

Assuming this is the true scenario, how will we know? Direct detection of black holes is discouraged, while the usual cosmic ray signals are absent. Instead, in most of the mass range, the best probes of primordial black holes are various lensing observations. For LIGO black holes, progress may be made via observations of fast radio bursts. These are strong radio signals of (probably) extragalactic origin and millisecond duration. The radio signal passing near a O(10)-solar-mass black hole could be strongly lensed, leading to repeated signals detected on Earth with an observable time delay. In the near future we should observe hundreds of such repeated bursts, or obtain new strong constraints on primordial black holes in the interesting mass ballpark. Gravitational wave astronomy may offer another way.  When more statistics is accumulated, we will be able to say something about the spatial distributions of the merger events. Primordial black holes should be distributed like dark matter halos, whereas astrophysical black holes should be correlated with luminous galaxies. Also, the typical eccentricity of the astrophysical black hole binaries should be different.  With some luck, the primordial black hole dark matter scenario may be vindicated or robustly excluded  in the near future.

See also these slides for more details. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

CMS: Higgs to mu tau is going away

One interesting anomaly in the LHC run-1 was a hint of Higgs boson decays to a muon and a tau lepton. Such process is forbidden in the Standard Model by the conservation of  muon and tau lepton numbers. Neutrino masses violate individual lepton numbers, but their effect is far too small to affect the Higgs decays in practice. On the other hand, new particles do not have to respect global symmetries of the Standard Model, and they could induce lepton flavor violating Higgs decays at an observable level. Surprisingly, CMS found a small excess in the Higgs to tau mu search in their 8 TeV data, with the measured branching fraction Br(h→τμ)=(0.84±0.37)%.  The analogous measurement in ATLAS is 1 sigma above the background-only hypothesis, Br(h→τμ)=(0.53±0.51)%. Together this merely corresponds to a 2.5 sigma excess, so it's not too exciting in itself. However, taken together with the B-meson anomalies in LHCb, it has raised hopes for lepton flavor violating new physics just around the corner.  For this reason, the CMS excess inspired a few dozen of theory papers, with Z' bosons, leptoquarks, and additional Higgs doublets pointed out as possible culprits.

Alas, the wind is changing. CMS made a search for h→τμ in their small stash of 13 TeV data collected in 2015. This time they were hit by a negative background fluctuation, and they found Br(h→τμ)=(-0.76±0.81)%. The accuracy of the new measurement is worse than that in run-1, but nevertheless it lowers the combined significance of the excess below 2 sigma. Statistically speaking, the situation hasn't changed much,  but psychologically this is very discouraging. A true signal is expected to grow when more data is added, and when it's the other way around it's usually a sign that we are dealing with a statistical fluctuation...

So, if you have a cool model explaining the h→τμ  excess be sure to post it on arXiv before more run-2 data is analyzed ;)