The hunt for supersymmetry: Is a choke on the cards?

The Copernican
April 28, 2014

“So irrelevant is the philosophy of quantum mechanics to its use that one begins to suspect that all the deep questions are really empty…”

— Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature (1992)

On a slightly humid yet clement January evening in 2013, a theoretical physicist named George Sterman was in Chennai to attend a conference at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. After the last talk of the day, he had strolled out of the auditorium and was mingling with students when I managed to get a few minutes with him. I asked for an interview and he agreed.

After some coffee, we seated ourselves at a kiosk in the middle of the lawn, the sun was setting, and mosquitoes abounded. Sterman was a particle physicist, so I opened with the customary question about the Higgs boson and expected him to swat it away with snowclones of the time like “fantastic”, “tribute to 50 years of mathematics” and “long-awaited”. He did say those things, but then he also expressed some disappointment.

George Sterman is distinguished for his work in quantum chromodynamics (QCD), for which he won the prestigious J.J. Sakurai Prize in 2003. QCD is a branch of physics that deals with particles that have a property called colour charge. Quarks and gluons are examples of such particles; these two together with electrons are the proverbial building blocks of matter. Sterman has been a physicist since the 1970s, the early years as far as experimental particle physics research is concerned.

The Standard Model disappoints

Over the last four or so decades, remarkable people like him have helped construct a model of laws, principles and theories that the rigours of this field are sustaining on, called the Standard Model of particle physics. And it was the reason Sterman was disappointed.

According to the Standard Model, Sterman explained, “if we gave our any reasonable estimate of what the mass of the Higgs particle should be, it should by all rights be huge! It should be as heavy as what we call the Planck mass.”

But it isn’t. The Higgs mass is around 125 GeV (GeV being a unit of energy that corresponds to certain values of a particle’s mass) – compare it with the proton that weighs 0.938 GeV. On the other hand, the Planck mass is 10^19 GeV. Seventeen orders of magnitude lie in between. According to Sterman, this isn’t natural. The question is why does there have to be such a big difference in what we can say the mass could be and what we find it to be.

Martinus Veltman, a Dutch theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2003 for his work in particle physics, painted a starker picture, “Since the energy of the Higgs [field] is distributed all over the universe, it should contribute to the curvature of space; if you do the calculation, the universe would have to curve to the size of a football,” in an interview to Nature in 2013.

Evidently, the Standard Model has many loose ends, and explaining the mass of the Higgs boson is only one of them. Another example is why it has no answer for what dark matter is and why it behaves the way it does. Yet another example is why the four fundamental forces of nature are not of the same order of magnitude.

An alternative

Thanks to the Standard Model, some mysteries have been solved, but other mysteries have come and are coming to light – in much the same way Isaac Newton’s ideas struggled to remain applicable in the troubled world of physics in the early 20th century. It seems history repeats itself through crises.

Fortunately, physicists in 1971-1972 had begun to piece together an alternative theory called supersymmetry, Susy for short. At the time, it was an alternative way of interpreting how emerging facts could be related to each other. Today, however, Susy is a more encompassing successor to the throne that the Standard Model occupies, a sort of mathematical framework in which the predictions of the Model still hold but no longer have those loose ends. And Susy’s USP is… well, that it doesn’t disappoint Sterman.

“There’s a reason why so many people felt so confident about supersymmetry,” he said. “It wasn’t just that it’s a beautiful theory – which it is – or that it engages and challenges the most mathematically oriented among physicists, but in another sense in which it appeared to be necessary. There’s this subtle concept that goes by the name of naturalness…”

And don’t yet look up ‘naturalness’ on Wikipedia because, for once, here is something so simple, so elegant, that it is precisely what its name implies. Naturalness is the idea that, for example, the Higgs boson is so lightweight because something out there is keeping it from being heavy. Naturalness is the idea that, in a given setting, the forces of nature all act in equal measure. Naturalness is the idea that causes seem natural, and logically plausible, without having to be fine-tuned in order to explain their effects. In other words, Susy, through its naturalness, makes possible a domesticated world, one without sudden, unexpected deviations from what common sense (a sophisticated one, anyway) would dictate.

To understand how it works, let us revisit the basics. Our observable universe plays host to two kinds of fundamental particles, which are packets of some well-defined amount of energy. The fermions, named for Enrico Fermi, are the matter particles. Things are made of them. The bosons, named for Satyendra Bose, are the force particles. Things interact with each other by using them as messengers. The Standard Model tells us how bosons and fermions will behave in a variety of situations.

However, the Model has no answers for why bosons and fermions weigh as much as they do, or come in as many varieties as they do. These are deeper questions that go beyond simply what we can observe. These are questions whose answers demand that we interpret what we know, that we explore the wisdom of nature that underlies our knowledge of it. To know this why, physicists investigated phenomena that lie beyond the Standard Model’s jurisdiction.

The search

One such place is actually nothingness, i.e. the quantum vacuum of deep space, where particles called virtual particles continuously wink in and out of existence. But even with their brief life-spans, they play a significant role in mediating the interactions between different particles. You will remember having studied in class IX that like charges repel each other. What you probably weren’t told is that the repulsive force between them is mediated by the exchange of virtual photons.

Curiously, these “virtual interactions” don’t proliferate haphazardly. Virtual particles don’t continuously “talk” to the electron or clump around the Higgs boson. If this happened, mass would accrue at a point out of thin air, and black holes would be popping up all around us. Why this doesn’t happen, physicists think, is because of Susy, whose invisible hand could be staying chaos from dominating our universe.

The way it does this is by invoking quantum mechanics, and conceiving that there is another dimension called superspace. In superspace, the bosons and fermions in the dimensions familiar to us behave differently, the laws conceived such that they restrict the random formation of black holes, for starters. In the May 2014 issue of Scientific American, Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu describe how things work in superspace:

“If you are a boson, taking one step in [superspace] turns you into a fermion; if you are a fermion, one step in [superspace] turns you into a boson. Furthermore, if you take one step in [superspace] and then step back again, you will find that you have also moved in ordinary space or time by some minimum amount. Thus, motion in [superspace] is tied up, in a complicated way, with ordinary motion.”

The presence of this dimension implies that all bosons and fermions have a corresponding particle called a superpartner particle. For each boson, there is a superpartner fermion called a bosino; for each fermion, there is a superpartner boson called a sfermion (why the confusing titles, though?).

Physicists are hoping this supersymmetric world exists. If it does, they will have found tools to explain the Higgs boson’s mass, the difference in strengths of the four fundamental forces, what dark matter could be, and a swarm of other nagging issues the Standard Model fails to resolve. Unfortunately, this is where Susy’s credit-worthiness runs into trouble.

No signs

“Experiment will always be the ultimate arbiter, so long as it’s science we’re doing.”

— Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill, Beyond the Higgs Boson (2013)

Since the first pieces of the Standard Model were brought together in the 1960s, researchers have run repeated tests to check if what it predicts were true. Each time, the Model has stood up to its promise and yielded accurate results. It withstood the test of time – a criterion it shares with the Nobel Prize for physics, which physicists working with the Model have won at least 15 times since 1957.

Susy, on the other hand, is still waiting for confirmation. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle physics experiment, ran its first round of experiments from 2009 to 2012, and found no signs of sfermions or bosinos. In fact, it has succeeded on the other hand to narrow the gaps in the Standard Model where Susy could be found. While the non-empty emptiness of quantum vacuum opened a small window into the world of Susy, a window through which we could stick a mathematical arm out and say “This is why black holes don’t just pop up”, the Model has persistently puttied every other crack we hound after.

An interesting quote comes to mind about Susy’s health. In November 2012, at the Hadron Collider Physics Symposium in Kyoto, Japan, physicists presented evidence of a particle decay that happens so rarely that only the LHC could have spotted it. The Standard Model predicts that every time the B_s (pronounced “Bee-sub-ess”) meson decays into a set of lighter particles, there is a small chance that it decays into two muons. The steps in which this happens is intricate, involving a process called a quantum loop.

What next?

“SUSY has been expected for a long time, but no trace has been found so far… Like the plot of the excellent movie ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)”

— Andy Parker, Cambridge University

Susy predicts that some supersymmetric particles should show themselves during the quantum loop, but no signs of them were found. On the other hand, the rate of B_s decays into two muons was consistent with the Model’s predictions. Prof. Chris Parkes, a British physicist, had then told BBC News: “Supersymmetry may not be dead but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital.” Why not: Our peek of the supersymmetric universe eludes us, and if the LHC can’t find it, what will?

Then again, it took us many centuries to find the electron, and then many decades to find anti-particles. Why should we hurry now? After all, as Dr. Rahul Sinha from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences told me after the Symposium had concluded, “a conclusive statement cannot be made as yet”. At this stage, even waiting for many years might not be necessary. The LHC is set to reawaken around January 2015 after a series of upgrades that will let the machine deliver 10 times more particle collisions per second per unit area. Mayhap a superpartner particle can be found lurking in this profusion by, say, 2017.

There are also plans for other more specialised colliders, such as Project X in the USA, which India has expressed interest in formally cooperating with. X, proposed to be built at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, Illinois, will produce high intensity proton beams to investigate a variety of hitherto unexplored realms. One of them is to produce heavy short-lived isotopes of elements like radium or francium, and use them to study if the electron has a dipole moment, or a pronounced negative charge along one direction, which Susy allows for.

(Moreover, if Project X is realised it could prove extra-useful for India because it makes possible a new kind of nuclear reactor design, called the accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor, which operates without a core of critical-mass radioactive fuel, rendering impossible accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima, while also being capable of inducing fission reactions using lighter fuel like thorium.)

Yet another avenue to explore Susy would be looking for dark matter particles using highly sensitive particle detectors such as LUX, XENON1T and CDMS. According to some supersymmetric models, the lightest Susy particles could actually be dark matter particles, so if a few are spotted and studied, they could buffet this theory’s sagging credence.

… which serves to remind us that this excitement could cut the other way, too. What if the LHC in its advanced avatar is still unable to find evidence of Susy? In fact, the Advanced Cold Molecule Electron group at Harvard University announced in December 2013 that they were able to experimentally rule out that they electron had a dipole moment with the highest precision attained to date. After such results, physicists will have to try and rework the theory, or perhaps zero in on other aspects of it that can be investigated by the LHC or Project X or other colliders.

But at the end of the day, there is also the romance of it all. It took George Sterman many years to find a theory as elegant and straightforward as Susy – an island of orderliness in the insane sea of quantum mechanics. How quickly would he give it up?

O Hunter, snare me his shadow!
O Nightingale, catch me his strain!
Else moonstruck with music and madness
I track him in vain!

— Oscar Wilde, In The Forest