Archive for quantum chromodynamics

Dark Matter from the Sun?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 16, 2014 by telescoper

This afternoon while I was struggling to pay attention during one of the presentations at the conference I’m at, when I noticed a potentially interesting story going around on Twitter. A little bit of research revealed that it relates to a paper on the arXiv, with the title Potential solar axion signatures in X-ray observations with the XMM-Newton observatory by Fraser et al. The first author of this paper was George Fraser of the University of Leicester who died the day after it was submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The paper has now been accepted and the final version has appeared on the arXiv in advance of its publication on Monday. The Guardian has already run a story on it.

This is the abstract:

The soft X-ray flux produced by solar axions in the Earth’s magnetic field is evaluated in the context of ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory. Recent calculations of the scattering of axion-conversion X-rays suggest that the sunward magnetosphere could be an observable source of 0.2-10 keV photons. For XMM-Newton, any conversion X-ray intensity will be seasonally modulated by virtue of the changing visibility of the sunward magnetic field region. A simple model of the geomagnetic field is combined with the ephemeris of XMM-Newton to predict the seasonal variation of the conversion X-ray intensity. This model is compared with stacked XMM-Newton blank sky datasets from which point sources have been systematically removed. Remarkably, a seasonally varying X-ray background signal is observed. The EPIC count rates are in the ratio of their X-ray grasps, indicating a non-instrumental, external photon origin, with significances of 11(pn), 4(MOS1) and 5(MOS2) sigma. After examining the constituent observations spatially, temporally and in terms of the cosmic X-ray background, we conclude that this variable signal is consistent with the conversion of solar axions in the Earth’s magnetic field. The spectrum is consistent with a solar axion spectrum dominated by bremsstrahlung- and Compton-like processes, i.e. axion-electron coupling dominates over axion-photon coupling and the peak of the axion spectrum is below 1 keV. A value of 2.2e-22 /GeV is derived for the product of the axion-photon and axion-electron coupling constants, for an axion mass in the micro-eV range. Comparisons with limits derived from white dwarf cooling may not be applicable, as these refer to axions in the 0.01 eV range. Preliminary results are given of a search for axion-conversion X-ray lines, in particular the predicted features due to silicon, sulphur and iron in the solar core, and the 14.4 keV transition line from 57Fe.

The paper concerns a hypothetical particle called the axion and I see someone has already edited the Wikipedia page to mention this new result. The idea of the axion has been around since the 1970s, when its existence was posited to solve a problem with quantum chromodynamics, but it was later realised that if it had a mass in the correct range it could be a candidate for the (cold) dark matter implied to exist by cosmological observations. Unlike many other candidates for cold dark matter, which experience only weak interactions, the axion feels the electromagnetic interaction, despite not carrying an electromagnetic charge. In particular, in a magnetic field the axion can convert into photons, leading to a number of ways of detecting the particle experimentally, none so far successful. If they exist, axions are also expected to be produced in the core of the Sun.

This particular study involved looking at 14 years of X-ray observations in which there appears to be an unexpected seasonal modulation in the observed X-ray flux which could be consistent with the conversion of axions produced by the Sun into X-ray photons as they pass through the Earth’s magnetic field. Here is a graphic I stole from the Guardian story:


Conversion of axions into X-rays in the Earth’s magnetic field. Image Credit: University of Leicester

I haven’t had time to do more than just skim the paper so I can’t comment in detail; it’s 67 pages long. Obviously it’s potentially extremely exciting but the evidence that the signal is produced by axions is circumstantial and one would have to eliminate other possible causes of cyclical variation to be sure. The possibilities that spring first to mind as an alternatives to the axion hypothesis relate to the complex interaction between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere. However, if the signal is produced by axions there should be characteristic features in the spectrum of the X-rays produced that would appear be very difficult to mimic. The axion hypothesis is therefore eminently testable, at least in principle, but current statistics don’t allow these tests to be performed. It’s tantalising, but if you want to ask me where I’d put my money I’m afraid I’d probably go for messy local plasma physics rather than anything more fundamental.

It seems to me that this is in some sense a similar situation to that of BICEP2: a potentially exciting discovery, which looks plausible, but with alternative (and more mundane) explanations not yet definitively ruled out. The difference is of course that this “discovery paper” has been refereed in the normal way, rather than being announced at a press-conference before being subjected to peer review…

A New Baryon on the Block

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2012 by telescoper

I just chanced upon the news that a new particle has been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider. This is probably old hat for people who work at CERN, but for those of us following along in their wake it definitely belongs to the category of things marked Quite Interesting.

The new particle is a baryon, which means that it consists of three quarks. These quarks are held together by the colour force (which I refuse to spell the American way); baryonic states exist by virtue of the colours of constituent quarks being a red-green-blue mixture that is colourless.

Quarks are fermions with spin 1/2. The new particle has spin 3/2 which contrasts with the most familiar baryons, the proton and the neutron, which also consist of three quarks but which have spin 1/2. The difference can be understood from basic quantum mechanics: spins have to be added like vectors, so the three individual quark spins can be added to produce total spin 3/2 or 1/2.

The most familiar spin 3/2 baryons are made from the lightest quarks (the up, down and strange) as shown in the diagram below:

The top row contains no strange quarks, only up and down. In fact the Δ0 and Δ+ contain exactly the same quark compositions as the proton and the neutron (udd and uud respectively), but differ in spin. The next row down contains one strange quark (e.g. uds) , the one below two (e.g uss), and the particle at the bottom is a very famous one called the Ω which is entirely strange (sss). For reasons I’ve never really understood, a strange quark carries a strangeness quantum number S=-1 (why not +1?) and the electrical charge is labelled by q in the diagram.

There are six quark flavours altogether so one can construct further baryonic states by substituting various combinations of heavier quarks (c,b and t) in the basic configurations shown above. There are also excited states with greater orbital energy; all the particles shown above have quarks in the lowest state of orbital angular momentum (L=O). There is then a potential plethora of baryonic particles,  but because all are unstable you need higher and higher energies to bring them into existence. Bring on the LHC.

The new particle is called the Ξb*, and it consists of a combination of up, strange and bottom quarks that required collision energies of 7 TeV to make it. The nomenclature reflects the fact that this chap looks a bit like the particles in the third row of the figure, but with one strange quark replaced by a much more massive bottom quark; this one has zero electrical charge because the charges on the u, s and b are +2/3, -1/3 and -1/3 respectively.

Anyway, here’s the graph that represents the detection of the new baryon on the block:

Only 21 events, mind you, but still pretty convincing. For technical details, see the arXiv preprint here.

Whether you really think of this as a new particle depends on how fundamental you think a particle should be. All six quark species have been experimentally detected and in a sense those are the real particles. Things like the Ξb* are merely combinations of these states. You probably wouldn’t say that an excited state of the hydrogen atom (say with the electron in the 2s energy level) is actually a different particle from the ground state so why do different permutations of the same quarks warrant distinct names?

The answer to this I guess is the fact that the mass of an excited hydrogen atom differs from the ground state by only a tiny amount; electronic energy levels correspond to electron-volt scales compared to the 1000 MeV or so that is the rest-mass energy of the nucleus. It’s all very different when you’re talking about energy levels of quarks in baryonic particles. In such situations the binding energies of the quarks are comparable to, or even larger than, their rest masses because the colour force is very strong and the quarks are whirling around inside baryons  with correspondingly enormous energies. When two creatures have enormously different masses, it’s difficult to force yourself to think of them as different manifestations of the same beast!

Anyway, the naming of this particle isn’t really the important thing. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. What matters is that existence of this new quark state provides another example of a test of our understanding of quark-quark interactions based on the theory of quantum chromodynamics. You might say that it passed with flying colours…