Skip to comments.As Supersymmetry Fails Tests, Physicists Seek New Ideas
Posted on 11/29/2012 3:10:46 PM PST by neverdem
As a young theorist in Moscow in 1982, Mikhail Shifman became enthralled with an elegant new theory called supersymmetry that attempted to incorporate the known elementary particles into a more complete inventory of the universe.
My papers from that time really radiate enthusiasm, said Shifman, now a 63-year-old professor at the University of Minnesota. Over the decades, he and thousands of other physicists developed the supersymmetry hypothesis, confident that experiments would confirm it. But nature apparently doesnt want it, he said. At least not in its original simple form.
With the worlds largest supercollider unable to find any of the particles the theory says must exist, Shifman is joining a growing chorus of researchers urging their peers to change course.
In an essay posted last month on the physics website arXiv.org, Shifman called on his colleagues to abandon the path of developing contrived baroque-like aesthetically unappealing modifications of supersymmetry to get around the fact that more straightforward versions of the theory have failed experimental tests. The time has come, he wrote, to start thinking and developing new ideas.
But there is little to build on. So far, no hints of “new physics” beyond the Standard Model the accepted set of equations describing the known elementary particles have shown up in experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, operated by the European research laboratory CERN outside Geneva, or anywhere else. (The recently discovered Higgs boson was predicted by the Standard Model.) The latest round of proton-smashing experiments, presented last week at the Hadron Collider Physics conference in Kyoto, Japan, ruled out another broad class of supersymmetry models, as well as other theories of new physics, by finding nothing unexpected in the rates of several particle decays.
Of course, it is disappointing, Shifman said. Were not gods. Were not prophets. In the absence of some guidance from experimental data, how do you guess something about nature?
Younger particle physicists now face a tough choice: follow the decades-long trail their mentors blazed, adopting ever more contrived versions of supersymmetry, or strike out on their own, without guidance from any intriguing new data.
“It’s a difficult question that most of us are trying not to answer yet,” said Adam Falkowski, a theoretical particle physicist from the University of Paris-South in Orsay, France, who is currently working at CERN. In a blog post about last weeks results, Falkowski joked that it was time to start applying for jobs in neuroscience.
Theres no way you can really call it encouraging, said Stephen Martin, a high-energy particle physicist at Northern Illinois University who works on supersymmetry, or SUSY for short. Im certainly not someone who believes SUSY has to be right; I just cant think of anything better.
Supersymmetry has dominated the particle physics landscape for decades, to the exclusion of all but a few alternative theories of physics beyond the Standard Model.
It’s hard to overstate just how much particle physicists of the past 20 to 30 years have invested in SUSY as a hypothesis, so the failure of the idea is going to have major implications for the field, said Peter Woit, a particle theorist and mathematician at Columbia University.
The theory is alluring for three primary reasons: It predicts the existence of particles that could constitute “dark matter,” an invisible substance that permeates the outskirts of galaxies. It unifies three of the fundamental forces at high energies. And by far the biggest motivation for studying supersymmetry it solves a conundrum in physics known as the hierarchy problem.
The problem arises from the disparity between gravity and the weak nuclear force, which is about 100 million trillion trillion (10^32) times stronger and acts at much smaller scales to mediate interactions inside atomic nuclei. The particles that carry the weak force, called W and Z bosons, derive their masses from the Higgs field, a field of energy saturating all space. But it is unclear why the energy of the Higgs field, and therefore the masses of the W and Z bosons, isnt far greater. Because other particles are intertwined with the Higgs field, their energies should spill into it during events known as quantum fluctuations. This should quickly drive up the energy of the Higgs field, making the W and Z bosons much more massive and rendering the weak nuclear force about as weak as gravity.
Supersymmetry solves the hierarchy problem by theorizing the existence of a superpartner twin for every elementary particle. According to the theory, fermions, which constitute matter, have superpartners that are bosons, which convey forces, and existing bosons have fermion superpartners. Because particles and their superpartners are of opposite types, their energy contributions to the Higgs field have opposite signs: One dials its energy up, the other dials it down. The pairs contributions cancel out, resulting in no catastrophic effect on the Higgs field. As a bonus, one of the undiscovered superpartners could make up dark matter.
Supersymmetry is such a beautiful structure, and in physics, we allow that kind of beauty and aesthetic quality to guide where we think the truth may be, said Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University.
Over time, as the superpartners failed to materialize, supersymmetry has grown less beautiful. According to mainstream models, to evade detection, superpartner particles would have to be much heavier than their twins, replacing an exact symmetry with something like a carnival mirror. Physicists have put forward a vast range of ideas for how the symmetry might have broken, spawning myriad versions of supersymmetry.
But the breaking of supersymmetry can pose a new problem. The heavier you have to make some of the superpartners compared to the existing particles, the more that cancellation of their effects doesnt quite work, Martin explained.
Most particle physicists in the 1980s thought they would detect superpartners that are only slightly heavier than the known particles. But the Tevatron, the now-retired particle accelerator at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., found no such evidence. As the Large Hadron Collider probes increasingly higher energies without any sign of supersymmetry particles, some physicists are saying the theory is dead. I think the LHC was a last gasp, Woit said.
Today, most of the remaining viable versions of supersymmetry predict superpartners so heavy that they would overpower the effects of their much lighter twins if not for fine-tuned cancellations between the various superpartners. But introducing fine-tuning in order to scale back the damage and solve the hierarchy problem makes some physicists uncomfortable. This, perhaps, shows that we should take a step back and start thinking anew on the problems for which SUSY-based phenomenology was introduced, Shifman said.
But some theorists are forging ahead, arguing that, in contrast to the beauty of the original theory, nature could just be an ugly combination of superpartner particles with a soupçon of fine-tuning. I think it is a mistake to focus on popular versions of supersymmetry, said Matt Strassler, a particle physicist at Rutgers University. Popularity contests are not reliable measures of truth.
In some of the less popular supersymmetry models, the lightest superpartners are not the ones the Large Hadron Collider experiments have looked for. In others, the superpartners are not heavier than existing particles but merely less stable, making them more difficult to detect. These theories will continue to be tested at the Large Hadron Collider after it is upgraded to full operational power in about two years.
If nothing new turns up an outcome casually referred to as the nightmare scenario physicists will be left with the same holes that riddled their picture of the universe three decades ago, before supersymmetry neatly plugged them. And, without an even higher-energy collider to test alternative ideas, Falkowski says, the field will undergo a slow decay: The number of jobs in particle physics will steadily decrease, and particle physicists will die out naturally.
Greene offers a brighter outlook. Science is this wonderfully self-correcting enterprise, he said. Ideas that are wrong get weeded out in time because they are not fruitful or because they are leading us to dead ends. That happens in a wonderfully internal way. People continue to work on what they find fascinating, and science meanders toward truth.
Note: This article was updated on Nov. 26, 2012, to clarify the role of the weak nuclear force inside atomic nuclei.
Simons Science News is an editorially-independent division of SimonsFoundation.org. Its mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the computational, physical and life sciences.
The photos of the “researchers” are very revealing. It looks more like a frat party, than a government research lab, but perhaps I’m confusing the two.
- The Big Bang Theory will always need technical consultants
- This is what happens when you discard that pesky unreal root
- They can cut their losses and put the LHC on Craigslist
Science is this wonderfully self-correcting enterprise,
Translation: Science is always guessing
“Of course, it is disappointing, Shifman said. Were not gods. Were not prophets. In the absence of some guidance from experimental data, how do you guess something about nature”
Well I guess they’re just going to have to go back to some of that Religious business again to get more ideas without actually crediting God for their inspirations...(sarcasm on)
Scientists need to get a clue...they need to include this equation into their algorithms if they ever want to get anywhere new and mind blowing... alpha=omega “the first and last”.
Then, someone won the race and all the losing physicists turned to other pursuits such as day-trading. Applying their minds to the trivial problems of moving money, stocks, bonds and derivatives around, they crashed all world markets in mere days creating the current eternal recession!
When the supersymmetry physicists move on, they possibly can get into some field that will reverse the recession!
Of note, the internet appears to have eaten away at all the potential blue laser profits, and is busily carving up cable TV
They can calculate the correct thaw time of a 100% all beef pattie by separating the heat equation in cylindrical coordinates.
What's that mean? Physicists are supposed to look like Willard Romney?
Scientists are people.
ROTFLMAO ~ too much man, too much ~~~ I say send ‘em back to the stock market ~ my hamburgers gotta’ taste like hamburgers ~
That's what science is.
Men trying to understand the beauty of God's creation. We see through a glass, darkly.
Best line I've heard / read all day!!!
If they all looked like Romney then people would really get suspicious. They should all keep their own faces, but just change to his body-type - pressed jeans, an open button-down collar blue or white shirt with a Navy sportcoat would be fine.
Yes. And they ought to dress like him too!
Except, of course, those that work around rotating machinery that could grab hold of their silk ties and drag their faces into sharp nasty gears.
Above all else, they should protect their fabulous smiles.
Yes, except for Bad Science where they accept "consensus."
Keep banging the rocks together, boys.
Some darklier than others.
Second, yes I have.
How much you want to bet he isn't wearing a greasy t-shirt under his jacket?
I just gave a Shifman look-a-like $10 as he sat under a railroad bridge in Chicago just a week ago.
Third, despite the hair Einstein is well groomed. Shifman's baldness isn't the issue, his sloppiness in an official photo is. Especially since he's wasting money getting it wrong.
Falkowski supplied that photo himself. It's his personal "official photo". He doesn't look like he's serious about his taxpayer subsidized stint at CERN.
Dear Taxpayer, Thanks for all the free money to hang out in Geneva. Europe is a blast, dudes. The trains are cheap on the student pass, chicks galore and they serve beer by the liter stein!. Awesome!!!
His photo makes his comment on the future of his profession especially rich: Falkowski says, the field will undergo a slow decay: The number of jobs in particle physics will steadily decrease, and particle physicists will die out naturally." He'd not survive in a normal competitive system.
Last, somebody who hangs out around super colliders on the taxpayer's dime is as bad as a welfare queen in front of a big screen TV. What have he or Shifman produced to make the world a better place?
BTW, if you're Shifman or Falkowski no harm meant.
This is a great book, required reading.
Dude, I'm a cook. The closest I get to science is H6C2O (arrange that to suit yourself).
If you think physicists are a mess, you should see 'em after closing and they hang out with the cooks. ;)