Elementary particle turns out to have been a mirage as CERN serves up more inelegant physics

Current physics and the Standard Model of the Universe it describes are no longer elegant. I have no doubt that the underlying structure of the universe is simple and beautiful. But models which require more than 61 elementary particles and numerous fudge factors (dark energy and dark matter) and an increasing complexity, are ugly and do not convince. Especially when they cannot explain the four “magical” forces we observe (gravitation, magnetic, strong nuclear and the weak nuclear forces).

I have a mixture of admiration and contempt for the “Big Physics” as practised by CERN and their experiments at the Large Hadron Collider. So, I was actually quite relieved to hear that CERN has just announced that, after much publicity, they hadn’t actually detected yet another elementary particle which was not predicted by the Standard Model. Since they found some anomalous data last December they have hyped the possibility of a new extra-heavy, elementary particle. Over 500 papers have been written (and published) postulating explanations of the data anomaly and fantasising about the nature of this particle. But the data has just disappeared. The postulated particle does not exist.

I remain convinced that 90% of modern physics is all about raising questions – some genuine and some fantasised – to ensure that funding for Sledgehammer Science continues. So not to worry. CERN may not have found another elementary particle this time. But they will soon come up with another unexpected particle, preceded by much publicity and hype, which will spawn much further speculation, and, most importantly, keep the funds flowing.

New York Times:

A great “might have been” for the universe, or at least for the people who study it, disappeared Friday.  

Last December, two teams of physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider reported that they might have seen traces of what could be a new fundamental constituent of nature, an elementary particle that is not part of the Standard Model that has ruled particle physics for the last half-century.  

A bump on a graph signaling excess pairs of gamma rays was most likely a statistical fluke, they said. But physicists have been holding their breath ever since.  

If real, the new particle would have opened a crack between the known and the unknown, affording a glimpse of quantum secrets undreamed of even by Einstein. Answers to questions like why there is matter but not antimatter in the universe, or the identity of the mysterious dark matter that provides the gravitational glue in the cosmos. In the few months after the announcement, 500 papers were written trying to interpret the meaning of the putative particle.

Science Alert:

CERN made the announcement this morning at the International Conference of High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Chicago, alongside a huge slew of new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) data.

“The intriguing hint of a possible resonance at 750 GeV decaying into photon pairs, which caused considerable interest from the 2015 data, has not reappeared in the much larger 2016 data set and thus appears to be a statistical fluctuation,” CERN announced in a press release sent via email.

Why did we ever think we’d found a new particle in the first place?

Back in December, researchers at CERN’s CMS and ATLAS experiments smashed particles together at incredibly high energies, sending subatomic particles flying out as debris.

Among that debris, the researchers saw an unexpected blip of energy in form of an excess in pairs of photons, which had a combined energy of 750 gigaelectron volts (GeV). 

The result lead to hundreds of journal article submissions on the mysterious energy signature – and prompted many physicists to hypothesise that the excess was a sign of a brand new fundamental particle, six times more massive than the Higgs boson – one that wasn’t predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics.

But, alas, the latest data collected by the LHC shows no evidence that this particle exists – despite further experiments, no sign of this 750 GeV bump has emerged since the original reading

So, we’re no closer to finding a new particle – or evidence of a new model that could explain some of the more mysterious aspects of the Universe, such as how gravity works (something the Standard Model doesn’t account for).

The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator (Image: CERN)

The Higgs Boson that CERN claims to have found last year has turned out to be not quite the boson predicted by the Standard Model. So while the Higgs boson was supposed to be the God particle, the boson found only indicated that there were more bosons to be found. I dislike the publicity and hype that CERN generates — which is entirely about securing further funding.  (The LHC cost $4.75 billion to build and sucks up about $5 billion annually to conduct their experiments).

Constantly adding complexity to a mathematical model and the increasing use of fudge factors is usually a sign that the model is fundamentally wrong. But some great insight is usually needed to simplify and correct a mathematical model. Until that insight comes, the models are the best available and just have to be fudged and added to in an ad hoc manner, to correct flaws as they are found.

The Standard Model and its 61+ particles will have to be replaced at some point by something more basic and more simple. But that will require some new Einstein-like insight, and who knows when that might occur. But the Standard Model is inelegant. The LHC is expected to operate for another 20 years. But the very weight of the investment in the LHC means that physicists cannot build a career by being heretical or by questioning the Standard Model itself.

I miss the elegance that Physics once chased:

Physics has become a Big Science where billion dollar sledgehammers are used to crack little nuts. Pieces of nut and shell go flying everywhere and each little fragment is considered a new elementary particle. The Rutherford-Bohr model still applies, but its elementary particles are no longer considered elementary. Particles with mass and charge are given constituent particles, one having mass and no charge, and one having charge and no mass. Unexplainable forces between particles are assigned special particles to carry the force. Particles which don’t exist, but may have existed, are defined and “discovered”. Errors in theoretical models are explained away by assigning appropriate properties to old particles or defining new particles. Every new particle leaves a new slime trail across the painting. It is as if a bunch of savages are doodling upon a masterpiece. The scribbling is ugly and hides the masterpiece underneath, but it does not mean that the masterpiece is not there.

The “standard model” does not quite fit observations so new theories of dark energy and dark matter are postulated (actually just invented as fudge factors) and further unknown particles are defined. The number of elementary particle have proliferated and are still increasing. The “standard model” of physics now includes at least 61 elementary particles (48 fermions and 13 bosons). Even the ancient civilisations knew better than to try and build with too many “standard” bricks. Where did simplicity go? Just the quarks can be red, blue or green. They can be up, down, charm, strange, top or bottom quarks. For every type of quark there is an antiquark. Electrons, muons and taus have each their corresponding neutrinos. And they all have their anti-particles.Gluons come in eight colour combinations. There are four electroweak bosons and there ought to be only one higgs boson. But who knows? CERN could find some more. I note that fat and thin or warm and cool types of particles have yet to be defined. Matter and antimatter particles on meeting each other, produce a burst of energy as they are annihilated. If forces are communicated by particles, gravity by gravitons and light by photons then perhaps all energy transmission can give rise to a whole new family of elementary particles.

The 61 particles still do not include the graviton or sparticles or any other unknown, invisible, magic particles that may go to making up dark matter and dark energy. Some of the dark matter may be stealthy dark matter and some may be phantom dark matter. One might think that when dark matter goes phantom, it ought to become visible, but that would be far too simple.  The level of complexity and apparent chaos is increasing. Every new particle discovered requires more money and Bigger Science to find the next postulated elementary particle.

When CERN claimed to have found the God Particle – the higgs boson – they still added the caveat that it was just one kind of the higgs boson and there could be more as yet unknown ones to come. So the ultimate elementary particle was certainly not the end of the road. Good grief! The end of the road can never be found. That might end the funding. And after all, even if the God Particle has been found, who created God? Guess how much all that is going to cost?



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