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Sally Shaw | University College London | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

Have we detected Dark Matter Axions?

An interesting headline piqued my interest when browsing the social networking and news website Reddit the other day. It simply said:

“The first direct detection of dark matter particles may have been achieved.”


Well, that was news to me! 
Obviously, the key word here is “may”. Nonetheless, I was intrigued, not being aware of any direct detection experiments publishing such results around this time. As a member of LUX, there are usually collaboration-wide emails sent out when a big paper is published by a rival group, most recently the DarkSide-50 results . Often an email like this is followed by a chain of comments, both good and bad, from the senior members of our group. I can’t imagine there being a day where I think I could read a paper and instantly have intelligent criticisms to share like those guys – but maybe when I’ve been in the dark matter business for 20+ years I will!

It is useful to look at other work similar to our own. We can learn from the mistakes and successes of the other groups within our community, and most of the time rivalry is friendly and professional. 
So obviously I took a look at this claimed direct detection. Note that there are three methods to dark matter detection, see figure. To summarise quickly,

The three routes to dark matter detection

  • Direct detection is the observation of an interaction of a dark matter particle with a standard model one
.
  • Indirect detection is the observation of annihilation products that have no apparent standard model source and so are assumed to be the products of dark matter annihilation.
  • Production is the measurement of missing energy and momentum in a particle interaction (generally a collider experiment) that could signify the creation of dark matter (this method must be very careful, as this is how the neutrinos are measured in collider experiments).

So I was rather surprised to find the article linked was about a space telescope – the XMM-Newton observatory. These sort of experiments are usually for indirect detection. The replies on the Reddit link reflected my own doubt – aside from the personification of x-rays, this comment was also my first thought:

“If they detected x-rays who are produced by dark matter axions then it’s not direct detection.”

These x-rays supposedly come from a particle called an axion – a dark matter candidate. But to address the comment, I considered LUX, a direct dark matter detector, where what we are actually detecting is photons. These are produced by the recoil of a xenon nuclei that interacted with a dark matter particle, and yet we call it direct – because the dark matter has interacted with a standard model particle, the xenon. 
So to determine whether this possible axion detection is direct, we need to understand the effect producing the x-rays. And for that, we need to know about axions.

I haven’t personally studied axions much at all. At the beginning of my PhD, I read a paper called “Expected Sensitivity to Galactic/Solar Axions and Bosonic Super-WIMPs based on the Axio-electric Effect in Liquid Xenon Dark Matter Detectors” – but I couldn’t tell you a single thing from that paper now, without re-reading it. After some research I have a bit more understanding under my belt, and for those of you that are physicists, I can summarise the idea:

  • The axion is a light boson, proposed by Roberto Peccei and Helen Quinn in 1977 to solve the strong CP problem (why does QCD not break CP-symmetry when there is no theoretical reason it shouldn’t?).
  • The introduction of the particle causes the strong CP violation to go to zero (by some fancy maths that I can’t pretend to understand!).
  • 
It has been considered as a cold dark matter candidate because it is neutral and very weakly interacting, and could have been produced with the right abundance.
Conversion of an axion to  a photon within a magnetic field (Yamanaka, Masato et al)

Conversion of an axion to a photon within a magnetic field (Yamanaka, Masato et al)


For non-physicists, the key thing to understand is that the axion is a particle predicted by a separate theory (nothing to do with dark matter) that solves another problem in physics. It just so happens that its properties make it a suitable candidate for dark matter. Sounds good so far – the axion kills two birds with one stone. We could detect a dark matter axion via an effect that converts an axion to an x-ray photon within a magnetic field. The XMM-Newton observatory orbits the Earth and looks for x-rays produced by the conversion of an axion within the Earth’s magnetic field. Although there is no particular interaction with a standard model particle (one is produced), the axion is not annihilating to produce the photons, so I think it is fair to call this direct detection.

What about the actual results? What has actually been detected is a seasonal variation in the cosmic x-ray background. The conversion signal is expected to be greater in summer due to the changing visibility of the magnetic field region facing the sun, and that’s exactly what was observed. In the paper’s conclusion the authors state:

“On the basis of our results from XMM-Newton, it appears plausible that axions – dark matter particle candidates – are indeed produced in the core of the Sun and do indeed convert to soft X-rays in the magnetic field of the Earth, giving rise to a significant, seasonally-variable component of the 2-6 keV CXB”

 

axions

Conversion of solar axions into photons within the Earth’s magnetic field (University of Leicester)

Note the language used – “it appears plausible”. This attitude of physicists to always be cautious and hold back from bold claims is a wise one – look what happened to BICEP2. It is something I am personally becoming familiar with, last week having come across a lovely LUX event that passed my initial cuts and looked very much like it could have been a WIMP. My project partner from my masters degree at the University of Warwick is now a new PhD student at UCL – and he takes great joy in embarrassing me in whatever way he can. So after I shared my findings with him, he told everyone we came across that I had found WIMPs. Even upon running into my supervisor, he asked “Have you seen Sally’s WIMP?”. I was not pleased – that is not a claim I want to make as a mere second year PhD student. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, my “WIMP” has now been cut away. But not for one second did I truly believe it could have been one – surely there’s no way I‘m going to be the one that discovers dark matter! (Universe, feel free to prove me wrong.)

These XMM-Newton results are nice, but tentative – they need confirming by more experiments. I can’t help but wonder how many big discoveries end up delayed or even discarded due to the cautiousness of physicists, who can scarcely believe they have found something so great. I look forward to the time when someone actually comes out and says ‘We did it – we found it.” with certainty. It would be extra nice if it were LUX. But realistically, to really convince anyone that dark matter has been found, detection via several different methods and in several different places is needed. There is a lot of work to do yet.

It’s an exciting time to be in this field, and papers like the XMM-Newton one keep us on our toes! LUX will be starting up again soon for what we hope will be a 300 day run, and an increase in sensitivity to WIMPs of around 5x. Maybe it’s time for me to re-read that paper on the axio-electric effect in liquid xenon detectors!

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