18 May 2010

Existence Explained

The New York Times

May 17, 2010

A New Clue to Explain Existence

Physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory have discovered a new clue that could help unravel one of the biggest mysteries of cosmology: why the universe is composed of matter and not antimatter. The finding portends fundamental discoveries at the new Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, as well as a possible explanation for our own existence.
In a mathematically perfect universe, we would be less than dead; we would never have existed. According to Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the Big Bang and then immediately annihilated each other in a blaze of lethal energy, leaving a big fat goose egg with which to make stars, galaxies and us. Yet we exist, and physicists would like to know why.

Data from collisions of protons and antiprotons at Fermilab’s Tevatron shows that the fireballs produced pairs of the particles known as muons slightly more often than they produced pairs of anti-muons. So the miniature universe inside the accelerator went from being neutral to being about 1 percent more matter than antimatter.

This may provide information for explaining the matter dominance in our universe. Word spread quickly among physicists who called the results “very impressive and inexplicable.”

It was Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist, who first provided a recipe for how matter could prevail over antimatter in the early universe. Among his conditions was that there be a slight difference in the properties of particles and antiparticles known technically as CP violation. In effect, when the charges and spins of particles are reversed, they should behave slightly differently. Over the years, physicists have discovered a few examples of CP violation in rare reactions between subatomic particles that tilt slightly in favor of matter over antimatter, but “not enough to explain our existence” in the words of one physician.

The new effect hinges on the behavior of strange particles called neutral B-mesons, famous for not being able to make up their minds. They oscillate back and forth trillions of times a second between their regular state and their antimatter state. As it happens, the mesons, created in the proton-antiproton collisions, seem to go from their antimatter state to their matter state more rapidly than they go the other way around, leading to an eventual preponderance of matter over antimatter of about 1 percent, when they decay to muons.

Whether this is enough to explain our existence is a question that cannot be answered until the cause of the still-mysterious behavior of the B-mesons is directly observed.

The observed preponderance is about 50 times what is predicted by the Standard Model, the suite of theories that has ruled particle physics for a generation, meaning that whatever is causing the B-meson to act this way is “new physics” that physicists have been yearning for almost as long.

Dr. Brooijmans said that the most likely explanations were some new particle not predicted by the Standard Model or some new kind of interaction between particles.

Neal Weiner of New York University said, “If this holds up, the L.H.C. is going to be producing some fantastic results.”

Nevertheless, physicists will be holding their breath until the results are confirmed by other experiments.

Joe Lykken, a theorist at Fermilab, said, “So I would not say that this announcement is the equivalent of seeing the face of God, but it might turn out to be the toe of God.”


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