Window for an advanced theory of particles closes further

A version of this article, as written by me, appeared in The Hindu on November 22, 2012.

On November 12, at the first day of the Hadron Collider Physics Symposium at Kyoto, Japan, researchers presented a handful of results that constrained the number of hiding places for a new theory of physics long believed to be promising.

Members of the team from the LHCb detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment located on the border of France and Switzerland provided evidence of a very rare particle-decay. The rate of the decay process was in fair agreement with an older theory of particles’ properties, called the Standard Model (SM), and deviated from the new theory, called Supersymmetry.

“Theorists have calculated that, in the Standard Model, this decay should occur about 3 times in every billion total decays of the particle,” announced Pierluigi Campana, LHCb spokesperson. “This first measurement gives a value of around 3.2 per billion, which is in very good agreement with the prediction.”

The result was presented at the 3.5-sigma confidence level, which corresponds to an error rate of 1-in-2,000. While not strong enough to claim discovery, it is valid as evidence.

The particle, called a Bsmeson, decayed from a bottom antiquark and strange quark pair into two muons. According to the SM, this is a complex and indirect decay process: the quarks exchange a W boson particle, turn into a top-antitop quark pair, which then decays into a Z boson or a Higgs boson. The boson then decays to two muons.

This indirect decay is called a quantum loop, and advanced theories like Supersymmetry predict new, short-lived particles to appear in such loops. The LHCb, which detected the decays, reported no such new particles.

The solid blue line shows post-decay muons from all events, and the red dotted line shows the muon-decay event from the B(s)0 meson. Because of a strong agreement with the SM, SUSY may as well abandon this bastion.

At the same time, in June 2011, the LHCb had announced that it had spotted hints of supersymmetric particles at 3.9-sigma. Thus, scientists will continue to conduct tests until they can stack 3.5 million-to-1 odds for or against Supersymmetry to close the case.

As Prof. Chris Parkes, spokesperson for the UK participation in the LHCb experiment, told BBC News: “Supersymmetry may not be dead but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital.”

The symposium, which concluded on November 16, also saw the release of the first batch of data generated in search of the Higgs boson since the initial announcement on July 4 this year.

The LHC can’t observe the Higgs boson directly because it quickly decays into lighter particles. So, physicists count up the lighter particles and try to see if some of those could have come from a momentarily existent Higgs.

These are still early days, but the data seems consistent with the predicted properties of the elusive particle, giving further strength to the validity of the SM.

Dr. Rahul Sinha, a physicist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, said, “So far there is nothing in the Higgs data that indicates that it is not the Higgs of Standard Model, but a conclusive statement cannot be made as yet.”

The scientific community, however, is disappointed as there are fewer channels for new physics to occur. While the SM is fairly consistent with experimental findings, it is still unable to explain some fundamental problems.

One, called the hierarchy problem, asks why some particles are much heavier than others. Supersymmetry is theoretically equipped to provide the answer, but experimental findings are only thinning down its chances.

Commenting on the results, Dr. G. Rajasekaran, scientific adviser to the India-based Neutrino Observatory being built at Theni, asked for patience. “Supersymmetry implies the existence of a whole new world of particles equaling our known world. Remember, we took a hundred years to discover the known particles starting with the electron.”

With each such tightening of the leash, physicists return to the drawing board and consider new possibilities from scratch. At the same time, they also hope that the initial results are wrong. “We now plan to continue analysing data to improve the accuracy of this measurement and others which could show effects of new physics,” said Campana.

So, while the area where a chink might be found in the SM armour is getting smaller, there is hope that there is a chink somewhere nonetheless.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.