Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A more complicated photon

The photon - the particle which makes up light - is probably one of the best known elementary particles. Nonetheless, everything can be made more involved. Thus, we studied a more complicated version of it in our most recent paper.

"Why in the world should we do this?" is a valid question at this point. That proceeded in multiple stages. I have written quite some time ago that for a particle physicist it is baffling that chemistry works. Chemistry works, among other things, because the electric charge of nuclei and electrons are perfectly balanced. Well, as perfect as we can measure, anyhow. In the standard model of particle physics there is no reason why this should be the case. However, the standard model is mathematical consistent only if this is the case. In fact, only if the balance is really perfect. Mathematical consistency is not a sufficient argument why a theory needs to be correct. Experiment is. So people have investigated this baffling fact since decades. In this process, the idea came up that there is a reason for this. And that reason would be that the standard model is only a facet of an underlying theory. This underlying theory enforces the equality of the electric charges by combining the weak, strong, and electromagnetic forces into one force. Such theories are called grand-unified theories, or short GUTs.

Such GUTs use a single gauge theory to combine all these forces. This is only possible with a certain kind, which is fundamentally different from the one we use for electromagnetism alone. It is more similar to the ones of the strong and weak force. We have investigated this type of theories for a long time. And one central insight is that in such theories none of the elementary particles can be observed individually. Only so-called bound states, which are made from two or more elementary particles, can be. That is very different from the ordinary photon of electromagnetism, which is, essentially, elementary.

The central question was therefore whether any such bound state could have the properties of the photon which we know from experiment. Otherwise a GUT would (very likely) not be a possible candidate to explain the balance of electric charges in chemistry. The photon has three important features. It does not carry itself electric charge. It is massless. And it has one unit of so-called spin.

Thus we needed to build a bound state in a GUT with these properties. The spin and absence of charge is actually quite simple, and you get this almost for free in any GUT. It is really the fact that it should not have mass which makes it so complicated. It is even more complicated to verify that it has no mass.

We had some ideas from our previous work, using pen-and-paper calculations, how this could work. There had also been some numerical simulations looking into similar questions in the early 1980ies, though they were, given resources back then, very exploratory. So we set up our own, modern-day numerical simulations. However, it is not yet possible to simulate a full, realistic GUT. For this all computing power on earth would not suffice, if we want to be done in a lifetime. So we used the simplest possible theory which had all the correct features relevant to a true GUT. This is an often employed trick in physics. One reduces a problem to the absolutely essential features, throwing away the rest, which has no or little impact on the particular question at hand. And by this getting a manageable problem.

So we did. And due to some ingenious ideas of my collaborators, especially my PhD student Vincenzo Afferrante, we were able to perform the simulations. There was a lot of frustrating work for the first few months, actually. But we persevered. And we were rewarded. In the end, we got our massless photon in exactly the way we hoped! We thus demonstrated that such a mechanism is possible. We got a massless photon made up out of elementary particles! A huge success for the whole setup. In addition, the things which make up the photon are (partly) very massive. That a bound state can be lighter than its constituents is an amazing consequence of special relativity. For us, this is an added bonus. Because you cannot see the fact that a particle is made up of other particles if you have not enough energy available to create the constituents. Again, this comes from the theory of relativity. In this scenario one of the constituents is indeed so heavy that we would not be able to produce it in experiments yet. Hence, with our current experiments, we would not yet detect that the photon is made up from other particles. And this is indeed what we observe. So everything is consistent. Very reassuring. Unfortunately, it is so heavy that also none of the currently planned experiments would be able to do so. Hence, we will not be able to test this idea directly experimentally. This will need to resort to indirect evidence.

Of course, I gloss over a lot of details and technicalities here, which took most of our time. Describing them would fill multiple entries.

Now, the only thing we need to do is to figure out whether anything we neglected could interfere. None of it will at a qualitative level. But, of course, we have very good experiments. And thus to make the whole idea a suitable GUT to describe nature, we also need to get it quantitatively correct. But this will be a huge step. Therefore we broke it down in small steps. We will do them one by one. Our next step is now to get the electron right. Let's see if this also works out.