The LHC turns back on this year for Run II. What might we see day 1?
In seven weeks CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest and most energetic particle accelerator in history, is scheduled to turn back on. The LHC has been shutdown since December 2012 in order for experimentalists to repair and upgrade the different detector experiments as well as the collider itself. When recommissioning starts, the proton beams will be over 60% more energetic than before and probe a regime of physics we have yet to explore directly. With this in mind, today’s post is about a type of new physics that, if it exists, we can potentially see in the first days of LHC Run II: excited quarks.
Excited Quarks and Composite Quarks
Excited quarks are interesting little beasts and are analogous to excited atoms in atomic physics. When light (a photon) is shined onto an atom, electrons orbiting the nucleus will become energized and are pushed into higher, metastable orbits. This is called an excited atom.
After some estimable and often measurable period of time, an electron will radiate light (photon) and drop down to its original orbit. When this happens, we say that an excited atom has relaxed to its ground state.
In analogy, if quarks were bound states of something smaller, i.e., if they were composite particles, then we can pump energy into a quark, excite it, and then watch the excited quark relax back into its ground state.
Observing an excited quark would tell us that the quark model may not be the whole story after all. Presently, the quark model is the best description of protons and neutrons, and it certainly works very, very well, but this does not have to be the case. Nature may have something special in store for us. However, this is not why I think excited quarks are so odd and interesting. What is not obvious is that excited quarks, if they exist, could show up immediately after turning the LHC back on.
Early Dijet Discoveries at LHC Run II
Excited quarks participate in the strong nuclear force (QCD) just like ordinary quarks, which means they can absorb and radiate gluons with equal strength. This is key because protons at the LHC are just brimming with highly energetic quarks and gluons. Of particles in a proton carrying a small-to-medium fraction of the proton’s total energy, gluons are the most commonly found particle in a proton (red g curve below). Of those particles carrying a large fraction of the proton’s energy, the up and down quarks are the most common particles (blue u and green d curves below). Excited quarks, if they exist, are readily produced because their ingredients are the most commonly found particles in the proton.
When an excited quark decays, it will split back into quark and gluon pair. These two particles will be very energetic (each will have energy equal to half the mass of the excited quark due to energy conservation), will be back-to-back (by linear momentum conservation), and will each form jets (hadronization in QCD). Such collisions are called “dijet” events (pronounced: die-jet) and look like this
Although gluons and quarks in the Standard Model can mimic the signal, one can add up the energies of the two jets (which would equal the excited quark’s mass due to energy conservation) and expect to see a bump in the data centered about the mass of the excited quark. Unfortunately, the data (below) do not show such a bump, indicating that excited quarks with masses below a couple TeV do not exist.
However, this does not mean that excited quarks do not or cannot exist at higher masses. If they do, and if their masses are within the energy reach of the LHC, then excited quarks are very much something we might see in just a few months from now.
Richard Ruiz (@BraveLittleMuon)
Appreciation to Ms. Frost and her awesome physics classes at Whitney M. Young High School in Chicago, Illinois for motivating this post. Good luck on your AP exams!