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Friday, December 6, 2013
Science ...

Back in June, I wrote a post about axions, a candidate for the sub-atomic particle responsible for dark matter in the universe. Axions are a serious contender for the long-sought dark matter sub-particle, but take a back seat to the “weakly interactive massive particles” (WIMP’s) that are forecast under the theoretical supersymmetric extensions of the Standard Particle Model that are implied by superstring theory. Actually, the hypothetical supersymmetric particles are often called “sparticles”, so dark matter would really be made up of “weakly interacting massive sparticles” or WIMS. But people like “WIMP” better, even though I think that WIMS is more whimsical.

The top theoretical and experimental physicists hope that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe will finally nail down evidence for a good supersymetrical WIMP in 2015, once the big machine revs up to full power. That would make everyone feel better about superstring theory, which the scientific establishment has a lot invested in; much money, many people’s careers in the balance. Some are a little nervous given that the LHC was able to find the Higgs boson at half-power, but didn’t get too far with supersymmetry. But most are saying wait until next year (or the year thereafter), we’re confident that once LHC can put the pedal to the metal, the massive little bugger will finally show up somewhere amidst all the millions of high-energy particle collision scatter plots.

But some of us like the underdog, and are rooting for the lowly axion. Even though an axion discovery wouldn’t nail down the bona fides of superstring theory, they would close a gap in the Standard Particle Model regarding the strong nuclear force, as well as giving us an understanding of what all that cold, invisible stuff really is, out there in the voids making big waves in the cosmic gravity fields.

So it was with some delight that I read recently that a simple little lab experiment run about 10 years ago in France might have accidentally tripped across evidence for the axion. The experiment in question focused on electronic currents in Josephson junctions, which have to do with superconducting materials (exotic stuff that allows electricity to pass without any resistance or heat loss). The scientists recorded some “anomalies” in the results that were never explained nor pursued (they might have just been sloppy or unanticipated experimental errors). But now, some other boffins have noticed that these anomalies could be explained by the presence of space-borne axions passing otherwise unnoticed thru the earth. This is sort of like how trillions of neutrinos pass thru every one of us every day without any real effect; only very rarely does a neutrino mix with the massive particles that make up our known world, and cause a tiny flash. About 57 years ago, we figured out some tricks that allowed us to detect neutrinos. We are still trying to come up with a similar trick for dark matter particles (or sparticles, if the supersymmetry people have their way).

So, the world of physics does not know right now if it accidentally tripped across a way to detect and confirm the existence of axions. But hopefully, it can repeat those earlier experiments and find out more about what did and what did not cause the Josephson junction anomalies (let’s hope that the anomalies show up in the first place on retrial! Sometimes later experiments fail to reproduce earlier findings).

If it turns out that this superconducting material experiment accidentally yielded evidence for the axion, it would be reminiscent of the discovery in the 1965 of the Cosmic Microwave Backdrop. I.e., the famous story of the two Bell Labs physicists, Penzias and Wilson, who were developing antennas for satellite communications and noticed a strange background signal that they couldn’t get rid of, no matter what they tried. Again, almost by accident, some scientists finally took notice of this and realized that these fellows while tending to their industrial problems had came across the long-sought microwave signals from a matter/energy transition phase in the early universe. Sometimes physics just gets lucky and unknowingly trips across a huge discovery while tending to an unexciting engineering project.

Being an axion fan, I’m hoping that history will repeat itself in time for the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which laid the groundwork for huge advances in our understanding of the universe. The CMB was a gift that keeps on giving, as it is still being studied and “data mined” today for more clues on how it all happened. It would be appropriate for the dark matter puzzle to be solved in the same manner, given that the ripples and patterns in the CMB provided key initial evidence as to the existence of dark matter. The CMB also nailed down the “Big Bang” theory of our Universe’s origin; and thus provided inspiration for the currently popular CBS comedy show! Just think, had Bell Labs decided to just work around that antenna hum back in 1965, today there would be no Sheldon, Leonard, Rajesh, Howard (talk about “WIMPs”), Penny, etc!

As I said in my June blog, stay tuned, as axions might yet turn out to be the next big little thing! Who knows what sort of ‘dark entertainment’ might be inspired by this in the future . . .

PS — A recent experiment focused on the outer electrons of the thorium atom adds more evidence that low-energy supersymmetric particles do NOT exist. In fact, this high-precision experiment indicates that the Large Hadron Collider in Europe will NOT have enough power to come across any “SUSY” super-symmetric particles. This does NOT mean that there are no SUSY particles. But if they do exist, they would be very heavy, unstable, and thus only exist on average for a fleeting nanosecond. If dark matter consists of SUSY WIMP’s, they would need to be relatively stable, and thus low energy.

Furthermore, the recent LUX detector experiment in South Dakota failed to detect any low-mass WIMP’s.

So, by process of elimination, I’d say that the odds for the axion theory of dark matter have just gotten a bit better. But science has its twists, so stay tuned!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:02 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I can’t say I can make an intelligent comment on WIMP’s vs WIMS or really anything about the whole Axion thing. Just that sentence tells you that I am hopelessly out of my league on this topic.

    Nevertheless, that has never stopped me from commenting. So. . . . A couple of tangential comments:

    First, it amazes me (and likely amazes the scientists, but they may not admit to their amazement) that so many discoveries are the result of serendipitous happenings. Thus the “little lab experiment” that *might* have accidentally (and fortunately) come across evidence for the axion: I find myself wondering how many things are “known” but discarded (so to say) because the results of an experiment come up with something totally out of the box (so to say).

    It’s always been my secret tho’t that in the end a major discovery (like, say, how to get from one dimension to another [that we may not even realize exists at all] or how to travel faster than light) will be the result of some experiment meant to prove something totally different and perhaps even mundane. Evidence of that is your example of Penzias and Wilson and the “background noise” they could not get rid of. My tho’t is that when mankind is ready for it, scientists will notice what they have already found.

    And as to the “Big Bang Theory”: Even though the science on it is so very minimal, what makes it funny are all the jokes that involve knowing some *very little* thing about exactly that – The Big Bang Theory. That’s one of the very few TV programs that can actually make me laugh. Perhaps my laughter shows only the dearth of my knowledge, but ask me if I care; it’s fun. MCS

    Comment by Mary — December 7, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

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