Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Update on the bananas

One of the most interesting physics stories of this year was the discovery of an unidentified 3.5 keV x-ray  emission line from galactic clusters. This so-called bulbulon can be interpreted as a signal of a sterile neutrino dark matter particle decaying into an active neutrino and  a photon. Some time ago I wrote about the banana paper that questioned the dark matter origin of the signal. Much has happened since, and I owe you an update. The current experimental situation is summarized in this plot:

To be more specific, here's what's happening.

  •  Several groups searching for the 3.5 keV emission have reported negative results. One of those searched for the signal in dwarf galaxies, which offer a  much cleaner environment allowing for a more reliable detection. No signal was found, although the limits do not exclude conclusively the original bulbulon claim. Another study looked for the signal in multiple galaxies. Again, no signal was found, but this time the reported limits are in severe tension with the sterile neutrino interpretation of the bulbulon. Yet another study failed to find the 3.5 keV line in  Coma, Virgo and Ophiuchus clusters, although they detect it in the Perseus cluster. Finally, the banana group analyzed the morphology of the 3.5 keV emission from the Galactic center and Perseus and found it incompatible with dark matter decay.
  • The discussion about the existence of the 3.5 keV emission from the Andromeda galaxy ongoing. The conclusions seem to depend on the strategy to determine the continuum x-ray emission. Using data from the XMM satellite, the banana group fits the background in the 3-4 keV range  and does not find the line, whereas this paper argues it is more kosher to fit in the 2-8 keV range, in which case the line can be detected in exactly the same dataset. It is not obvious who is right, although the fact that the significance of the signal depends so strongly on the background fitting procedure is not encouraging. 
  • The main battle rages on around K-XVIII (X-n stands for the X atom stripped of n-1 electrons; thus, K-XVIII is the potassium ion with 2 electrons). This little bastard has emission lines at 3.47 keV and 3.51 keV which could account for the bulbulon signal. In the original paper, the bulbuline group invokes a model of plasma emission that allows them to constrain  the flux due to the K-XVIII emission from  the  measured ratios of the strong S-XVI/S-XV and Ca-XX/Ca-XIX lines. The banana paper argued that the bulbuline model is unrealistic as it  gives inconsistent predictions for some plasma line ratios. The bulbuline group pointed out that the banana group used wrong numbers to estimate the line emission strenghts. The banana group maintains that their conclusions still hold when the error is corrected. It all boils down to the question whether the allowed range for the K-XVIII emission strength assumed by the bulbine group is conservative enough. Explaining the 3.5 keV feature solely by K-XVIII requires assuming element abundance ratios that are very different than the solar one, which may or may not be realistic.   
  •  On the other hand, both groups have converged on the subject of chlorine. In the banana  paper it  was pointed out that the 3.5 keV line may be due to the Cl-XVII (hydrogen-like chlorine ion) Lyman-β transition which happens to be at 3.51 keV. However the bulbuline group subsequently derived limits on the corresponding Lyman-α line at 2.96 keV. From these limits, one can deduce in a fairly model-independent way that the contribution of Cl-XVII Lyman-β transition is negligible.   

To clarify the situation we need more replies to comments on replies, and maybe also  better data from future x-ray satellite missions. The significance of the detection depends, more than we'd wish, on dirty astrophysics involved in modeling the standard x-ray emission from galactic plasma. It seems unlikely that the sterile neutrino model with the originally reported parameters will stand, as it is in tension with several other analyses. The probability of the 3.5 keV signal being of dark matter origin is certainly much lower than a few months ago. But the jury is still out, and it's not impossible to imagine that more data and more analyses will tip the scales the other way.

Further reading: how to protect yourself from someone attacking you with a banana.


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Weekend Plot: Fermi and 7 dwarfs

This weekend the featured plot is borrowed from the presentation of Brandon Anderson at the symposium of the Fermi collaboration last week:

It shows the limits on the cross section of dark matter annihilation into b-quark pairs derived from gamma-ray observations of satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. These so-called dwarf galaxies are the most dark matter dominated objects known, which makes them a convenient place to search for dark matter. For example, WIMP dark matter annihilating into charged standard model particles would lead to an extended gamma-ray emission that could be spotted by the Fermi space telescope. Such emission coming from dwarf galaxies would be a smoking-gun signature of dark matter annihilation, given the relatively low level of dirty astrophysical backgrounds there (unlike in the center of our galaxy). Fermi has been looking for such signals, and a year ago they already published limits on the cross-section of dark matter annihilation into different final states.  At the time, they also found a ~2 sigma excess that was intriguing, especially in conjunction with the observed gamma-ray excess from the center of our galaxy. Now Fermi is coming back with an updated analysis using more data and better calibration. The excess is largely gone and, for the bb final state, the new limits  (blue) are 5 times stronger than the previous ones (black). For the theoretically favored WIMP annihilation cross section (horizontal dashed line), dark matter particle  annihilating into b-quarks is excluded if its mass is below ~100 GeV. The new limits are in tension with the dark matter interpretation of the galactic center excess (various colorful rings, depending who you like). Of course, astrophysics is not an exact science, and by exploring numerous uncertainties one can soften the tension. What is more certain is that a smoking-gun signature of dark matter annihilation in dwarf galaxies is unlikely to be delivered in the foreseeable future.    

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Weekend Plot: Bs mixing phase update

Today's featured plot was released last week by the LHCb collaboration:

It shows the CP violating phase in Bs meson mixing, denoted as φs,  versus the difference of the decay widths between the two Bs meson eigenstates. The interest in φs comes from the fact that it's  one of the precious observables that 1) is allowed by the symmetries of the Standard Model, 2) is severely suppressed due to the CKM structure of flavor violation in the Standard Model. Such observables are a great place to look for new physics (other observables in this family include Bs/Bd→μμ, K→πνν, ...). New particles, even too heavy to be produced directly at the LHC, could produce measurable contributions to φs as long as they don't respect the Standard Model flavor structure. For example, a new force carrier with a mass as large as 100-1000 TeV and order 1 flavor- and CP-violating coupling to b and s quarks would be visible given the current experimental precision. Similarly, loops of supersymmetric particles with 10 TeV masses could show up, again if the flavor structure in the superpartner sector is not aligned with that in the  Standard Model.

The phase φs can be measured in certain decays of neutral Bs mesons where the process involves an interference of direct decays and decays through oscillation into the anti-Bs meson. Several years ago measurements at Tevatron's D0 and CDF experiments suggested a large new physics contribution. The mild excess has gone away since, like many other such hints.  The latest value quoted by LHCb is φs = - 0.010 ± 0.040, which combines earlier measurements of the Bs → J/ψ π+ π- and  Bs → Ds+ Ds- decays with  the brand new measurement of the Bs → J/ψ K+ K- decay. The experimental precision is already comparable to the Standard Model prediction of φs = - 0.036. Further progress is still possible, as the Standard Model prediction can be computed to a few percent accuracy.  But the room for new physics here is getting tighter and tighter.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Weekend Plot: Stealth stops exposed

This weekend we admire the new ATLAS limits on stops - hypothetical supersymmetric partners of the top quark:

For a stop promptly decaying to a top quark and an invisible neutralino, the new search excludes the mass range between m_top and 191 GeV. These numbers do not seem impressive at first sight, but let me explain why it's interesting.

No sign of SUSY at the LHC could mean that she is dead, or that she is resting hiding. Indeed, the current experimental coverage has several blind spots where supersymmetric particles, in spite of being produced in large numbers, induce too subtle signals in a detector to be easily spotted. For example, based on the observed distribution of events with a top-antitop quark pair accompanied by large missing momentum, ATLAS and CMS put the lower limit on the stop mass at around 750 GeV. However, these searches are inefficient if the stop mass is close to that of the top quark, 175-200 GeV (more generally, for m_top+m_neutralino ≈ m_stop). In this so-called stealth stop region,  the momentum carried away by the neutralino is too small to distinguish stop production from the standard model process of top quark production. We need another trick to smoke out light stops. The ATLAS collaboration followed theorist's suggestion to use spin correlations. In the standard model, gluons couple  either to 2 left-handed or to 2 right-handed quarks. This leads to a certain amount of correlation between  the spins of the top and the antitop quark, which can be seen by looking at angular distributions of the decay products of  the top quarks. If, on the other hand, a pair of top quarks originates from a decay of spin-0 stops, the spins of the pair are not correlated. ATLAS measured spin correlation in top pair production; in practice, they measured the distribution of the azimuthal angle between the two charged leptons in the events where both top quarks decay leptonically. As usual, they found it in a good agreement with the standard model prediction. This allows them to deduce that there cannot be too many stops polluting the top quark sample, and place the limit of 20 picobarns on the stop production cross section at the LHC, see the black line on the plot. Given the theoretical uncertainties, that cross section corresponds to the stop mass somewhere between 191 GeV and 202 GeV.

So, the stealth stop window is not completely closed yet, but we're getting there.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

BICEP: what was wrong and what was right

As you already know, Planck finally came out of the closet.  The Monday paper shows that the galactic dust polarization fraction in the BICEP window is larger than predicted by pre-Planck models, as previously suggested by an independent theorist's analysis. As a result, the dust contribution to the B-mode power spectrum at moderate multipoles is about 4 times larger than estimated by BICEP. This implies that the dust alone can account for the signal strength reported by BICEP in March this year, without invoking a primordial component from the early universe. See the plot, borrowed from Kyle Helson's twitter, with overlaid BICEP data points and Planck's dust estimates.  For a detailed discussion of Planck's paper I recommend reading other blogs who know better than me, see e.g. here or here or here.  Instead, I will focus and the sociological and ontological aspects of the affair. There's no question that BICEP screwed up big time. But can we identify precisely which steps lead to the downfall, and which were a normal part of the scientific process?  The story is complicated and there are many contradicting opinions, so to clarify it I will provide you with simple right or wrong answers :)

  • BICEP Instrument: Right.
    Whatever happened one should not forget that,  at the instrumental level,  BICEP was a huge success. The sensitivity to B-mode polarization at  angular scales above a degree beats previous CMB experiments by an order of magnitude. Other experiments are following in their tracks, and we should soon obtain better limits on the tensor-to-scalar ratio.  (Though it seems BICEP already comes close to the ultimate sensitivity for single-frequency ground-based experiment, given the dust pollution demonstrated by Planck).  
  • ArXiv first: Right.
    Some complained that the BICEP result were announced before the paper was accepted in a journal. True, peer-review is the pillar of science, but it does not mean we have to adhere to obsolete 20th century standards. The BICEP paper has undergone a thorough peer-review process of the best possible kind that included the whole community. It is highly unlikely the error would have been caught by a random journal referee. 
  • Press conference: Right.  
    Many considered inappropriate that the release of the results was turned into a publicity stunt with a press conference, champagne, and  YouTube videos. My opinion is that,  as long as they believed the signal is robust, they had every right to throw a party, much like CERN did on the occasion of the Higgs discovery.  In the end  it didn't really matter. Given the importance of the discovery and how news spread over the blogosphere, the net effect on the public would be exactly the same if they just submitted to ArXiv.  
  • Data scraping: Right.
    There was a lot of indignation about the fact that, to estimate the dust polarization fraction in their field of view,  BICEP used preliminary Planck data digitized from a slide in a conference presentation. I don't understand what's the problem.  You should always use all publicly available relevant information; it's as simple as that. 
  • Inflation spin: Wrong.
    BICEP sold the discovery as the smoking-gun evidence for cosmic inflation. This narrative was picked by mainstream press, often mixing inflation with the big bang scenario. In reality, the primordial B-mode would be yet another evidence for inflation and a measurement of one crucial  parameter - the energy density during inflation. This would be of course a huge thing, but apparently not big enough for PR departments. The damage is obvious: now that the result does not stand,  the inflation picture and, by association,  the whole big bang scenario is  undermined in public perception. Now Guth and Linde cannot even dream of a Nobel prize, thanks to BICEP...  
  • Quality control: Wrong. 
    Sure, everyone makes mistakes. But, from what I heard, that unfortunate analysis of the dust polarization fraction based on the Planck polarization data was performed by a single collaboration member and never cross-checked. I understand  there's been some bad luck involved: the wrong estimate fell very close to the predictions of faulty pre-Planck dust models. But, for dog's sake, the whole Nobel-prize-worth discovery was hinging on that. There's nothing wrong with being wrong, but not double- and triple-checking crucial elements of the analysis is criminal. 
  • Denial: Wrong.
    The error in the estimate of the dust polarization fraction was understood soon after the initial announcement, and BICEP leaders  were aware of it. Instead of biting the bullet, they chose a we-stand-by-our-results story. This resembled a child sweeping a broken vase under the sofa in the hope that no one would notice...  

To conclude, BICEP goofed it up and deserves ridicule, in the same way a person slipping on a banana skin does. With some minimal precautions the mishap could have been avoided, or at least the damage could have been reduced. On the positive side, science worked once again, and  we all learned something. Astrophysicists learned some exciting stuff about polarized dust in our galaxy. The public learned that science can get it wrong at times but is always self-correcting. And Andrei Linde learned to not open the door to a stranger with a backpack.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Dark matter or pulsars? AMS hints it's neither.

Yesterday AMS-02 updated their measurement of cosmic-ray positron and electron fluxes. The newly published data extend to positron energies 500 GeV, compared to 350 GeV in the previous release. The central value of the positron fraction in the highest energy bin is one third of the error bar lower than the central value of the next-to-highestbin.  This allows the collaboration to conclude that the positron fraction has a maximum and starts to decrease at high energies :]  The sloppy presentation and unnecessary hype obscures the fact that AMS actually found something non-trivial.  Namely, it is interesting that the positron fraction, after a sharp rise between 10 and 200 GeV, seems to plateau at higher energies at the value around 15%.  This sort of behavior, although not expected by popular models of cosmic ray propagation, was actually predicted a few years ago, well before AMS was launched.  

Before I get to the point, let's have a brief summary. In 2008 the PAMELA experiment observed a steep rise of the cosmic ray positron fraction between 10 and 100 GeV. Positrons are routinely produced by scattering of high energy cosmic rays (secondary production), but the rise was not predicted by models of cosmic ray propagations. This prompted speculations of another (primary) source of positrons: from pulsars, supernovae or other astrophysical objects, to  dark matter annihilation. The dark matter explanation is unlikely for many reasons. On the theoretical side, the large annihilation cross section required is difficult to achieve, and it is difficult to produce a large flux of positrons without producing an excess of antiprotons at the same time. In particular, the MSSM neutralino entertained in the last AMS paper certainly cannot fit the cosmic-ray data for these reasons. When theoretical obstacles are overcome by skillful model building, constraints from gamma ray and radio observations disfavor the relevant parameter space. Even if these constraints are dismissed due to large astrophysical uncertainties, the models poorly fit the shape the electron and positron spectrum observed by PAMELA, AMS, and FERMI (see the addendum of this paper for a recent discussion). Pulsars, on the other hand, are a plausible but handwaving explanation: we know they are all around and we know they produce electron-positron pairs in the magnetosphere, but we cannot calculate the spectrum from first principles.

But maybe primary positron sources are not needed at all? The old paper by Katz et al. proposes a different approach. Rather than starting with a particular propagation model, it assumes the high-energy positrons observed by PAMELA are secondary, and attempts to deduce from the data the parameters controlling the propagation of cosmic rays. The logic is based on two premises. Firstly, while production of cosmic rays in our galaxy contains many unknowns, the production of different particles is strongly correlated, with the relative ratios depending on nuclear cross sections that are measurable in laboratories. Secondly, different particles propagate in the magnetic field of the galaxy in the same way, depending only on their rigidity (momentum divided by charge). Thus, from an observed flux of one particle, one can predict the production rate of other particles. This approach is quite successful in predicting the cosmic antiproton flux based on the observed boron flux. For positrons, the story is more complicated because of large energy losses (cooling) due to synchrotron and inverse-Compton processes. However, in this case one can make the  exercise of computing the positron flux assuming no losses at all. The result correspond to roughly 20% positron fraction above 100 GeV. Since in the real world cooling can only suppress the positron flux, the value computed assuming no cooling represents an upper bound on the positron fraction.

Now, at lower energies, the observed positron flux is a factor of a few below the upper bound. This is already intriguing, as hypothetical primary positrons could in principle have an arbitrary flux,  orders of magnitude larger or smaller than this upper bound. The rise observed by PAMELA can be interpreted that the suppression due to cooling decreases as positron energy increases. This is not implausible: the suppression depends on the interplay of the cooling time and mean propagation time of positrons, both of which are unknown functions of energy. Once the cooling time exceeds the propagation time the suppression factor is completely gone. In such a case the positron fraction should saturate the upper limit. This is what seems to be happening at the energies 200-500 GeV probed by AMS, as can be seen in the plot. Already the previous AMS data were consistent with this picture, and the latest update only strengthens it.

So, it may be that the mystery of cosmic ray positrons has a simple down-to-galactic-disc explanation. If further observations show the positron flux climbing  above the upper limit or dropping suddenly, then the secondary production hypothesis would be invalidated. But, for the moment, the AMS data seems to be consistent with no primary sources, just assuming that the cooling time of positrons is shorter than predicted by the state-of-the-art propagation models. So, instead of dark matter, AMS might have discovered models of cosmic-ray propagation need a fix. That's less spectacular, but still worthwhile.

Thanks to Kfir for the plot and explanations. 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Weekend Plot: ultimate demise of diphoton Higgs excess

This weekend's plot is the latest ATLAS measurement of the Higgs signal strength μ in the diphoton channel:

Together with the CMS paper posted earlier this summer, this is probably the final word on Higgs-to-2-photons decays in the LHC run-I. These measurements have had an eventful history. The diphoton final state was one of the Higgs discovery channels back in 2012. Initially, both ATLAS and CMS were seeing a large excess of the Higgs signal strength compared to the standard model prediction. That was very exciting, as it was hinting at new charged particles  with masses near 100 GeV. But in nature, sooner or later, everything has to converge to the standard model.  ATLAS and CMS chose different strategies to get there. In CMS, the central value μ(t) displays an oscillatory behavior, alternating between excess and deficit. Each iteration brings it closer to the standard model limit μ = 1, with the latest reported value of μ= 1.14 ± 0.26.  In ATLAS, on the other hand, μ(t) decreases monotonically, from μ = 1.8 ± 0.5 in summer 2012 down to μ = 1.17 ± 0.27 today (that precise value corresponds to the Higgs mass of 125.4 GeV, but from the plot one can see that the signal strength is similar anywhere in the 125-126 GeV range). At the end of the day, both strategies have led to almost identical answers :)