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Thursday, June 4, 2015
Science ...

Here’s something from the science desk. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been rooting for the axion. I’ve posted three different blogs about this hypothetical sub-atomic particle, and why a good number of physicists are interested in it. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the axion from the public’s point of view is that it is a dark horse candidate to explain “dark matter”, the spooky, nearly invisible stuff floating throughout the voids of space which help to shape and guide the galaxies and their mega-families (i.e., galaxies made of galaxies).

The main contended for the dark matter crown remains the super-symmetrical “light stable particle”, one of a new family of particles that is predicted by string theory (and a variety of other high-level cosmic formulas). Unfortunately, the search for the supersymmetry family has gone into overtime at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. It was supposed to be found in the first big run of the collider (which did find the Higgs particle), but surprised everyone by its absence. The LHC is now back and running at souped-up energy levels, seeking to blast those tricky supersymmetrical thingies out of their etherial lairds. It could take at least a year, perhaps several years, for the LHC to make a thorough scan across the energy levels that it now accesses. But if the lightest supersymmetrical particle still doesn’t show up, then a whole ‘nuther idea is needed.

The axion is one of the strongest candidates for such an alternative approach to dark matter. It was originally conceived as a way to resolve a problem with the sub-atomic strong force, i.e. the Charge / Parity symmetry problem in the interaction between neutrons and protons in the atom’s nucleus. An alternative explanation to resolve that problem has still not yet been found, so the axion might still play the hero’s role in settling that dilemma. But then physicists realized that it had enough gravitational mass and the characteristic of near-invisibility to electromagnetic forces such that it could also play the role that mysterious dark matter plays. Roughly speaking, if found, the axion and its field might thus kill two science mystery birds with one stone.

And now I read that it might get a third bird too. Despite the great joy in science-land last year around the long-awaited confirmation of the Higgs boson and field, there remains a big problem with it. The Higgs turns out to be be way too small in mass and energy to play in the same league with a quanta of “gravitation state”, the thing that makes mass the way it is. I.e., something with mass has its momentum affected by gravity in distinctive ways (gravity warps space for any particle, even massless bosons like the photon — but it warps space a lot more when mass is present in the particle). The gravitational state quanta is equivalent to what is called the “Planck Mass”. This would be akin to a tiny, foundational bit of gravity, the tiny bits which swarm together and form the gravitational field.

Another way to think about this is that the Plank Mass is the mass of the smallest possible black hole. Black holes are pretty darn dense and heavy. So even the tiniest possible piece of it would still be relatively heavy, i.e. would still need a lot of energy to exist. And the Higgs particle as we know it just doesn’t have such a level of energy, even though it supposedly does what that tiny chunk of pure gravity could do, i.e. slow down the acceleration of anything that has it, and warp the space around it.

The proposed answer to the problem was, you guessed it, supersymmetry. The Higgs would somehow interact with virtual heavy supersymmetric particles popping up from the “quantum foam” (the energy instability of the vacuum), and thus gain the “kick” needed to do what the Higgs actually does to particles that it conveys mass to. But once again, the supersymmetrical train is behind schedule, and if it doesn’t show up in another few years, it might well not be running at all. And guess what? If it doesn’t, the axion is ready once again to fill the void! Under a new theory just proposed by some theoretical physicists, the axion field can act like a spring, absorbing or releasing energy based on the environment; in some situations it gets wound up and has the high energy expected of the gravity quanta; in other situations it relaxes or unwinds, akin to the low energy Higgs that we know and observe. So, we get the best of both worlds — we get the meek and mild Higgs particle which shows up in the Large Hadron Collider, but also the superman-strength Higgs when it has to give mass to real particles — all with the help of an unwinding axion field interaction.

Once again, axions come to the rescue !! But I’m getting ahead of things. Right now, even though there still is no supersymmetry, there still aren’t any axions. Various experiments in search of the axion continue, including the big ADMX detector system out in Washington State. Like the much bigger and more expensive Large Hadron Collider in Europe, the ADMX is now ramping up to full strength. So as with supersymmetry, it’s just about time for the axion to show up or be forgotten. The betting odds still favor “Susy”, as some physicists whimsically call the supersymmetry concept. But the axion is still in the game, holding its own as a feasible alternative. This is an exciting little horse race in science, and we may soon know which horse is going to make it across the finish line. (There are some European bookmakers who take bets on scientific questions, but I’m not sure if they have a SUSY versus Axion bet going yet. However, the now-gone Intrade did take bets on when SUSY would show up.) I’ll there on the sidelines of the track, yelling “go Axion, go!!” Just as though it were the Kentucky Derby!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:11 pm      

  1. Jim, I hate to say it, but once again I almost have no clue of what you’re talking about. On some level I “get” the ideas but on some level I keep losing my tho’t, going off on a couple of other tangents.

    One tangent is (which I’ve stated more than once before in different words): The scientists *will* find what it is they are looking for as they are creating it by looking for it. When they have put enough “energy” into the creation/looking part, they *will* find it. Then too this leads me to wonder how it is that the scientists don’t get the idea that they themselves are the “creators”, thus God . . . but how could they then deny there *is* a God if they’d admit they themselves are the creator(s). (I digress.)

    Oddly enough, the other tangent is how almost “theological” the whole “Axion” thing seems. But now that I think about it, perhaps it’s not that far from the previous paragraph, perhaps this “tangent” is a different version of the first one. Nevertheless. . . .

    Somewhere in reading this whole “Axion” thing (no disrespect intended in the expression here) I found myself thinking that this is akin to the theology of the Trinity. The theologians “went looking” for what/who the Godhead is and came up with the idea of the Trinity. Thus, it seems to me, since no one has seen God to verify the Trinity, that the theologians themselves “decided” to figure out what God was, thought and thought about it, finally came up with an idea that the Godhead had to be “three persons in one God” – the Trinity – then a lot of explanation about all that.

    I mean no disrespect here, but this is how it seems to me. That if the scientists look and search long and hard enough, they too will come up with what the Universe is, thus creating it. Then I find myself wondering just how that differs from what the theologians did with the Trinity (and still do with other Church doctrines).

    Maybe it’s that I simply do not know enough about science and the Axion; but I still find myself wondering how it is that so many scientists don’t somewhere begin to think that they themselves are the creators. ‘Course, maybe it’s a good thing they have not tho’t about that: How could they then come to the conclusion that “there is no god”; they’d be denying their own existence.

    I do not mean to be facetious here. I simply find myself wondering about such things. After all, in a sense we are *all* creators in that we “create” (bring into being) our own lives as we live them. Maybe God is the composite of all the “creators” of creation.

    Then again, perhaps this whole comment is simply one big tangent as I have nothing coherent or worthwhile to add or subtract from the idea of Axions. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 5, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

  2. Mary, all you need to takeaway from a blog like this is that physics is still working on finding new particles, so as to explain various mysteries about the universe that are still unsolved. You have no doubt read and heard a lot about the celebrated Higgs particle, whose discovery was confirmed last year. The next thing you will be hearing and reading a lot about (say on NPR) will either be supersymmetry or the axion. If you take that much away, I’ve done my job. I don’t expect you or 99% of everyone else to sweat the implications of charge-parity symmetry in the strong force.

    Comment by Jim G — June 6, 2015 @ 10:20 am

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