Particle physics is a field of extremes. Scales always have 10really big number associated. Some results from the Large Hadron Collider Beauty (LHCb) experiment have recently been reported that are statistically significant, and they may have profound implications for the Standard Model, but it might also just be a numbers anomaly, and we won’t get to find out for a while. Let’s dive into the basics of quantum particles, in case your elementary school education is a little rusty.
It all starts when one particle loves another particle very much and they are attracted to each other, but then things move too fast, and all of a sudden they’re going in circles in opposite directions, and then they break up catastrophically…
You might think that particle physicists would be sad when an experiment comes up with different results than their theory would predict, but nothing brightens up a field like unexplained phenomena. Indeed, particle physicists have been feverishly looking for deviations from the Standard Model. This year, there have been tantalizing signs that a long unresolved discrepancy between theory and experiment will be confirmed by new experimental results.
In particular, the quest to measure the magnetic moment of muons started more than 60 years ago, and this has been measured ever more precisely since. From an experiment in 1959 at CERN in Switzerland, to the turn of the century at Brookhaven, to this year’s result at Fermilab, the magnetic moment of the muon seems to be at odds with theoretical predictions.
Although a statistical fluke is basically excluded, this value also relies on complex theoretical calculations that are not all in agreement. Instead of heralding a new era of physics, it might just be another headline too good to be true. But some physicists are mumbling “new particle” in hushed tones. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.
When it comes to building particle accelerators the credo has always been “bigger, badder, better”. While the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) with its 27 km circumference and €7.5 billion budget is still the largest and most expensive scientific instrument ever built, it’s physics program is slowly coming to an end. In 2027, it will receive the last major upgrade, dubbed the High-Luminosity LHC, which is expected to complete operations in 2038. This may seem like a long time ahead but the scientific community is already thinking about what comes next.
Recently, CERN released an update of the future European strategy for particle physics which includes the feasibility study for a 100 km large Future Circular Collider (FCC). Let’s take a short break and look back into the history of “atom smashers” and the scientific progress they brought along. Continue reading “Smashing The Atom: A Brief History Of Particle Accelerators”→
The Stanford University team developed a device that uses lasers to accelerate electrons along etched channels on a silicon chip. The idea for a miniature accelerator has existed since the laser’s invention in 1960, but the requirement for a device to generate electrons made the early proof-of-concepts difficult to manufacture in bulk.
The electromagnetic waves produced by lasers have much shorter wavelengths than the microwaves used in full-scale accelerators, allowing them to accelerate electrons in a far more confined space – channels can be shrunk to three one-thousandths of a millimeter wide. In order to couple the lasers and electrons properly, the light waves must push the particles in the correct direction with as much energy as possible. This also requires the device to generate electrons and transmit them via the proper channel. With an accelerator engraved in silicon, multiple components can fit on the same chip.
Within the latest prototype, a laser hits a grating from above the chip, directing the energy into a waveguide. The electromagnetic waves radiate out, moving with the waveguide until they reach an etched pattern that creates a focused electromagnetic field. As electrons move through the field, they accelerate and gain energy.
The results showed that the prototype could boost the electrons by 915 electron volts, equivalent to the electrons gaining 30 million electron volts over a meter. While the change is not on the scale of SLAC, it does scale up more easily since researchers can fit multiple accelerating paths onto future designs without the bulk of a full-scale accelerator. The chip exists as a single stage of the accelerator, allowing more researchers to conduct experiments without the need to reserve space in expensive full-scale particle accelerators.
If you watch Star Trek, you will know one way to get rid of pesky aliens is to vent antimatter. The truth is, antimatter is a little less exotic than it appears on TV, but for a variety of reasons there hasn’t been nearly as much practical research done with it. There are well over 200 electron accelerators in labs around the world, but only a handful that work with positrons, the electron’s anti-counterpart. [Dr. Aakash Sahai] would like to change that. He’s got a new design that could bring antimatter beams out of the lab and onto the desktop. He hasn’t built a prototype, but he did publish some proof-of-concept simulation work in Physical Review Accelerators and Beams.
Today, generating high-energy positron beams requires an RF accelerator — miles of track with powerful electromagnets, klystrons, and microwave cavities. Not something you are going to build in your garage this year. [Sahai] is borrowing ideas from electron laser-plasma accelerators (ELPA) — a technology that has allowed electron accelerators to shrink to mere inches — and turned it around to create positrons instead.
The military have specific demands on components for their equipment. Hackers are well aware MIL-SPEC parts typically command higher prices. That quality is useful beyond their military service, which lead to how CERN obtained large quantities of a specific type of brass from obsolete Russian naval ordnance.
The remainder of the article shared many anecdotes around Fermilab’s use of armor plate from decommissioned US Navy warships. They obtained a mind-boggling amount – thousands of tons – just for the cost of transport. Dropping the cost of high quality steel to “only” $53 per ton (1975 dollars, ~$250 today) and far more economical than buying new. Not all of the steel acquired by Fermilab went to science experiments, though. They also put a little bit towards sculptures on the Fermilab campus. (One of the few contexts where 21 tons of steel can be considered “a little bit”.)
Hold out your hands in front of you, palms forward. They look quite similar, but I’m sure you’re all too aware that they’re actually mirror images of each other. Your hands are chiral objects, which means they’re asymmetric but not superimposable. This property is quite interesting when studying the physical properties of matter. A chiral molecule can have completely different properties from its mirrored counterpart. In physics, producing the mirror image of something is known as parity. And in 1927, a hypothetical law known as the conservation of parity was formulated. It stated that no matter the experiment or physical interaction between objects – parity must be conserved. In other words, the results of an experiment would remain the same if you tired it again with the experiment arranged in its mirror image. There can be no distinction between left/right or clockwise/counter-clockwise in terms of any physical interaction.
The nuclear physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu, who would eventually prove that quantum mechanics discriminates between left- and right-handedness, was a woman, and the two men who worked out the theory behind the “Wu Experiment” received a Nobel prize for their joint work. If we think it’s strange that quantum mechanics works differently for mirror-image particles, how strange is it that a physicist wouldn’t get recognized just because of (her) gender? We’re mostly here to talk about the physics, but we’ll get back to Chien-Shiung Wu soon.
The End of Parity
Conservation of parity was the product of a physicist by the name of Eugene P. Wigner, and it would play an important role in the growing maturity of quantum mechanics. It was common knowledge that macro-world objects like planets and baseballs followed Wigner’s conservation of parity. To suggest that this law extended into the quantum world was intuitive, but not more than intuition. And at that time, it was already well known that quantum objects did not play by the same rules as classical objects. Would quantum mechanics be so strange as to care about handedness? Continue reading “There Is No Parity: Chien-Shiung Wu”→