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Starts With A Bang

Five independent signs of new physics in the Universe

All pointing toward the Standard Model plus General Relativity not being all there is.

“The Universe is very, very big. It also loves a paradox. For example, it has some extremely strict rules.
Rule number one: Nothing lasts forever. Not you or your family or your house or your planet or the sun. It is an absolute rule. Therefore when someone says that their love will never die, it means that their love is not real, for everything that is real dies.
Rule number two: Everything lasts forever.” –
Craig Ferguson

Since the Large Hadron Collider at CERN turned on, it’s brought with it an incredible slew of results. Large numbers of rare, exotic and unstable particles have been created, and their decays have been measured to unprecedented precision. The Higgs boson has been created and observed to have a mass of 126 GeV/c2, branching and decaying in exactly the ratios the Standard Model predicts. As it now stands, we’ve detected every particle and antiparticle predicted by the most successful particle physics theory of all time. Unless we get hit by a big physics surprise, the LHC will become renowned for having found the Higgs Boson and nothing else fundamental. If these results hold, there’s no window into what lies beyond the Standard Model coming from traditional experimental particle physics.

The observed Higgs decay channels vs. the Standard Model agreement, with the latest data from ATLAS and CMS included. The agreement is astounding. Images credit: André David, via Twitter.

But that by no means is the same thing as saying “the Standard Model is all there is.” Quite to the contrary, there are a large number of observations that tell us quite clearly that there’s very likely more to the Universe than just the quarks, leptons and bosons of the Standard Model. While experiments are telling us that low-energy supersymmetry and extra dimensions probably don’t exist (or are so constrained that they’re irrelevant), there are plenty of pieces of evidence that there’s more to existence than the Standard Model alone. What else is out there? There are five strong, independent lines of inquiry that reveal there’s got to be something.

The way galaxies cluster together is impossible to achieve in a Universe without dark matter. Image credit: NASA, ESA, CFHT, and M.J. Jee (University of California, Davis).

1) Dark matter: From structure formation to colliding galaxy clusters, from gravitational lensing to Big Bang nucleosynthesis, from baryon acoustic oscillations to the pattern of anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background, it’s clear that normal matter — the stuff made out of standard model particles — is only about 15% of the total mass in the Universe. The rest of it simply doesn’t have those strong or electromagnetic interactions, and neutrinos are of insufficient mass to account for more than about 1% of the missing stuff. But yet, when we look at the effects of gravitation on the Universe, there’s some type of matter that doesn’t interact with light the way all the charged-and-neutral particles of the Standard Model do.

The separation between normal matter (pink) and gravity (blue) in colliding galaxy clusters is undeniable. Image credit: NASA / CXC / STScI / UC Davis / W. Dawson et al., of the Musket Ball cluster.

If dark matter is a particle — and the way it appears to clump and cluster strongly suggests that it is — it must be a particle beyond the standard model. Just what its properties turn out to be are currently an open question in physics, and though many candidates have emerged, none of them are particularly more compelling than any other. There’s probablyat least one new particle out there to account for this that can’t be in the Standard Model, but we haven’t directly detected it yet.

A logarithmic scale showing the masses of the Standard Models fermions: the quarks and leptons. Note the tininess of the neutrino masses. Image credit: Hitoshi Murayama of

2) Massive neutrinos: According to the Standard Model, particles can either be massless — like the photon and gluon — or could have a mass determined by their coupling to the Higgs field. There’s a range of what these couplings are, and so we get particles as light as the electron — at just 0.05% of a GeV (where 0.938 GeV is the mass of a proton) — and as heavy as the top quark, which tips the mass scales at around 170–175 GeV. But then there’s the neutrino.

The Sudbury neutrino observatory, which was instrumental in demonstrating neutrino oscillations and the massiveness of neutrinos. Image credit: A. B. McDonald (Queen’s University) et al., The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Institute.

During the last decade, when neutrino masses were constrained for the first time (via neutrino oscillations), it surprised many that they were found to be very low in mass, but to have definitively non-zero masses.Why is that? The general way of explaining this — the see-saw mechanism — typically involves additional, very heavy particles (like, maybe a billion or a trillion times more massive than the Standard Model particles) that are extensions to the Standard Model; without a new particle, their tiny, tiny masses (just a billionth of an electron’s mass) are completely unexplained. Whether see-saw-type particles exist or there’s some other explanation, these massive neutrinos are almost definitely, in some way, indicative of new physics beyond the Standard Model.

Changing particles for antiparticles and reflecting them in a mirror simultaneously represents CP symmetry. If the anti-mirror decays are different from the normal decays, CP is violated. Image credit: E. Siegel.

3) The Strong CP problem: If you switched all the particles involved in an interaction with their antiparticles, you might expect the laws of physics to be the same: that’s known as Charge Conjugation, or C-symmetry. If you reflected particles in a mirror, you’d probably expect the mirrored particles to behave the same way as their reflections: that’s known as Parity, or P-symmetry. There are examples of where one of these symmetries is violated in nature, and in the Weak interactions (the ones mediated by the W-and-Z bosons), there’s nothing forbidding C and P from being violated together.

Nature is not symmetric between particles/antiparticles or between mirror images of particles, or both, combined. Image credit: E. Siegel.

In fact, this CP-violation does occur for the weak interactions (and has been measured in multiple experiments), and is very important for a number of theoretical reasons. Well, along the same vein, there’s nothing in the Standard Model forbidding CP-violation from occurring in the strong interactions. But there isn’t any observed, to less than 0.0000001% of the anticipated (weak-scale) value!

Why not? Well, pretty much any physical explanation (as opposed to the non-explanation, “that’s just the funny way it is”) results in the existence of a new particle beyond the Standard Model, which may also be a good candidate for solving problem #1: the dark matter problem! But however you slice it, the Standard Model doesn’t explain the observed lack of strong CP-violation; we’d need new physics to account for it.

Gravitational waves can only be generated from inflation if gravity is an inherently quantum theory. Image credit: BICEP2 Collaboration.

4) Quantum Gravity: The Standard Model makes no effort nor any claims to incorporate the gravitational force/interaction into it. But our current best theory of gravity — General Relativity — makes no sense at extremely large gravitational field or extremely small distances; the singularities it gives us are indicative of physics breaking down. In order to explain what goes on there, it will require a more complete, orquantum, theory of gravity. You might’ve thought, “well, the other three forces are quantized, but maybe gravity doesn’t have to be,” and that would’ve been a reasonable assumption, except for one thing.

Light that’s polarized in a particular fashion from the Big Bang’s leftover glow would indicate primordial gravitational waves… and that gravity is an inherently quantum force. Image credit:the BICEP2 collaboration, via

Inflation generates gravitational waves from an inherently quantum process! Despite the false announcement of BICEP2 a few years ago, the hunt is on for detecting this primordial relic of the earliest stages of the Universe. By checking the polarization of the light from the Big Bang’s leftover glow to higher and higher precision, physicists are determined to find it. When they do, physics dictates that they could not have been generated by primordial gravitational waves unless gravity was a fundamentally quantum theory! If you want to have quantum fluctuations stretched across the Universe, your field — in this case, gravitational — needs to be a quantum one.

This may be the most elusive and the most fundamental of predictions beyond the Standard Model, but there’s one inescapable prediction: there’s at least one (and possibly more) new particle out there if gravity can, in fact, be quantized. And finally…

The early Universe was filled with matter and antimatter amidst a sea of radiation. But when it all annihilated away after cooling, a tiny bit of matter was left over. Image credit: E. Siegel.

5) Baryogenesis: There’s more matter than antimatter in the Universe, and while there’s a lot we can say about why and how, we’re not sure exactly what pathway the Universe took to wind up in this configuration. There aren’t necessarily any new particles that must exist to explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry, but of the four most common ways to produce it (GUT, Electroweak, Leptogenesis and Affleck-Dine), only one (Electroweak baryogenesis) doesn’t necessarilyinvolve the existence of new, beyond-the-Standard-Model particles. (Although even that ones involves new, beyond-the-Standard-Model interactions!)

When the electroweak symmetry breaks, the combination of CP-violation and baryon number violation can create a matter/antimatter asymmetry where there was none before. Image credit: retrieved from University of Heidelberg, via

Now, it’s possible that many of these problems are related, and that there could even be just one or two new particles and/or pieces of physics that account for the solution to all of them. But it’s also conceivable that not only are there new particles and/or new physics for each of these problems separately, but that there new avenues of physics will open up even more physics beyond the standard model. Some possibilities include that there’s a particle (or more than one) possibly associated with dark energy, there may be magnetic monopoles, grand unification, preons (smaller particles making up quarks and leptons) and the door is still open for particles from either extra dimensions or supersymmetry.

The Standard Model particles and their supersymmetric counterparts. Exactly 50% of these particles have been discovered, and 50% have never showed a trace that they exist. Image credit: Claire David, of

But there could be something even simpler. Consider, if you will, the simple atom, made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. The electron is a completely stable particle. While a free neutron will decay, a free proton is assumed to be completely stable. But it isn’t necessarily completely stable. Through giant experiments involving astronomical numbers of atoms, we’ve determined that a proton’s lifetime is greater than at least 1035 years, which is amazing.

But that’s not infinite. If a proton does eventually decay, and have a half-life that is anything less than infinity, that means there are new particles beyond the Standard Model. And while the 83rd element in the periodic table was once thought to be stable…

Ultrapure bismuth, element #83, and the unique structures that it forms. Image credit: David Abercrombie of flickr, under cc-by-2.0.

We now (as of 2003) know it will decay with a half-life of ~10¹⁹ years. But on even longer timescales, perhaps lead, iron or even a single proton will decay, too! All of these measurements could point the way to new particles. But even if the new particles that must exist to support these observations are inaccessible to particle colliders (like the LHC), there are still interesting new discoveries that await us at high energies within the Standard Model! Pentaquark and tetraquark states are emerging and being confirmed, showing that three-quark or quark-antiquark combinations aren’t all there is.

B mesons can decay directly into a J/Ψ (psi) particle and a Φ (phi) particle. The CDF scientists found evidence that some B mesons unexpectedly decay into an intermediate tetraquark structure identified as a Y particle. Image credit: Symmetry Magazine.

Finally, even if there’s nothing beyond the Standard Model, one fun prediction is the existence of glueballs, or bound states of gluons. They ought to be found in upcoming particle collider experiments. If they don’t exist, or fail to show up where they ought to, that’s a big problem for quantum chromodynamics, or the theory of the strong interactions that’s part of the Standard Model. And — if you take nothing else away from this article, I hope you take away this — if our best theories can’t explain either the existence or absence of a phenomenon, that’s a good indication that there’s more to the Universe than our best theories dictate!

So keep an eye out for this one: no glueballs = something else is wrong with the Standard Model! And that’s where we are right now. Even if there’s no supersymmetry and no extra dimensions, we’ve still got a lot more to discover, and we have at least five compelling observational facts that tell us the Standard Model isn’t all there is to the Universe. Keep your eyes and ears open, and let’s all keep looking together!

This post first appeared at Forbes, and is brought to you ad-free by our Patreon supporters. Comment on our forum, & buy our first book: Beyond The Galaxy!


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