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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Monday, November 18, 2013

Spooky Round Electrons Zap Phantom Theory

There was once a young man who had a dream in which he saw a lovely young woman clad in shimmering clothes. The woman wore earrings, a necklace, and bracelets, and the colors she wore were perfectly balanced on the left and right side of her body. The man decided to call the woman Suzie. He thought of her again and again, until one night he had the same dream. He then decided to search throughout his city to find the woman in his dream. He searched high and low, but did not find her. Vowing not to give up, he got a job allowing him to travel through many cities. In every city he searched for Suzie, and he hoped to make her his bride. The years passed, and the man one day found himself old and still without any wife. He cursed the day he had ever fallen in love with Suzie, the phantom bride.

This fictional story bears a resemblance to something that has gone on in real life. The young man represents the physicists who have thought up and pursued for decades the theory called supersymmetry. This theory is called SUSY for short, and it involves a symmetry rather like the symmetry of the Suzie in this story. Sadly the long quest for SUSY has ended up being as much of a frustration as the young man's long fruitless quest for Suzie.

Supersymmetry is a theory that for each type of particle known to physicists, there is another type of particle called a superparticle – a particle that is very similar, except with a different spin. One of the main motivations for this theory has been to explain away some apparent fine-tuning in the Higgs field. Without the theory of supersymmetry, we are apparently left with a Higgs field that has to be fine-tuned to many decimal places (a problem known to physicists as the hierarchy problem). As one CERN scientist says
"In a quantum theory, the hierarchy implies a severe fine tuning of the fundamental parameters in more than 30 decimal places in order to keep the masses of elementary particles at their observed values.”
But if the theory of supersymmetry is correct, we might have a way to avoid the conclusion that the Higgs field is so very highly calibrated by chance.

Some scientists have also said that they like the theory of supersymmetry because of its beauty. Unfortunately, things have not gone well for the lovely theory of supersymmetry. The theory tends to predict the existence of particles which simply have not been found by the Large Hadron Collider, that huge scientific device in Europe which discovered the Higgs boson. Some physicists now say that the theory of supersymmetry is on life support.

Another blow to supersymmetry came last week, through a new measurement of the amazing roundness of the electron. In my previous blog post Four Insanely Eerie Things About the Electron, I noted the astonishing degree of roundness in this fundamental particle. What is called the “classical electron radius" is equal to .00000000000028 centimeter, but scientific measurements by 6 scientists showed that the electron had no deviations in roundness greater than .0000000000000000000000000001 centimeter. As Scientific American put it, “The electron is a perfect sphere, give or take barely one part in a million billion.” As the Guardian put it, “Were the electron scaled up to the size of the solar system, any deviation from its roundness would be smaller than the width of a human hair.” I noted that this degree of roundness is 100 million times greater than the roundest thing ever manufactured by human beings, a sphere that a scientist designed to be the roundest thing ever made.

Some readers may have thought that such a finding was perhaps just some misunderstanding, perhaps one of those scientific studies that doesn't hold up when other scientists try to reproduce it. But last week scientists announced a new measurement of the roundness of the electron from 18 scientists different from the 6 scientists who made the earlier measurement. These 18 scientists came up with the same result, except that they found that the electron was an additional ten times rounder than the previous study. In announcing the study, Scientific American says, “The electron appears to be spherical to within 0.00000000000000000000000000001 centimeter.”

Besides raising a few hairs on the back of our necks, this eerie finding is bad news for the supersymmetry theory, It seems that the supersymmetry theory tends to predict an electron that isn't so round. If there really were all those “superpartner” particles predicted by supersymmetry (SUSY), it seems that some of them would virtually cling to electrons, causing them not to appear so astonishingly round.

Alas the SUSY theory appears to be like the phantom bride Suzie in my story-- an insubstantial symmetrical beauty to be quested after but never found. 

cosmic phantom
A lovely cosmic phantom, like SUSY