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The Case for Supersymmetry: Prior to String Theory

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  • The Case for Supersymmetry: Prior to String Theory

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 7 - The "Super" in Superstrings
    The Case for Supersymmetry: Prior to String Theory
    First, from an aesthetic standpoint, physicists find it hard to believe that nature would respect almost, but not quite all of the symmetries that are mathematically possible. Of course, it is possible that an incomplete utilization of symmetry is what actually occurs, but it would be such a shame. It would be as if Bach, after developing numerous intertwining voices to fill out an ingenious pattern of musical symmetry, left out the final, resolving measure.

    Second, even within the standard model, a theory that ignores gravity, thorny technical issues that are associated with quantum processes are swiftly solved if the theory is supersymmetric. The basic problem is that every distinct particle species makes its own contribution to the microscopic quantum-mechanical frenzy. Physicists have found that in the bath of this frenzy, certain processes involving particle interactions remain consistent only if numerical parameters in the standard model are fine-tuned—to better than one part in a million billion—to cancel out the most pernicious quantum effects. Such precision is on par with adjusting the launch angle of a bullet fired from an enormously powerful rifle, so that it hits a specified target on the moon with a margin of error no greater than the thickness of an amoeba. Although numerical adjustments of an analogous precision can be made within the standard model, many physicists are quite suspect of a theory that is so delicately constructed that it falls apart if a number on which it depends is changed in the fifteenth digit after the decimal point. 5

    Supersymmetry changes this drastically because bosons—particles whose spin is a whole number (named after the Indian physicist Satyendra Bose)—and [I]fermions[I]—particles whose spin is half of a whole (odd) number (named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi)—tend to give cancelling quantum-mechanical contributions. Like opposite ends of a seesaw, when the quantum jitters of a boson are positive, those of a fermion tend to be negative, and vice versa. Since supersymmetry ensures that bosons and fermions occur in pairs, substantial cancellations occur from the outset—cancellations that significantly calm some of the frenzied quantum effects. It turns out that the consistency of the supersymmetric standard model—the standard model augmented by all of the superpartner particles—no longer relies upon the uncomfortably delicate numerical adjustments of the ordinary standard model. Although this is a highly technical issue, many particle physicists find that this realization makes supersymmetry very attractive.

    The third piece of circumstantial evidence for supersymmetry comes from the notion of grand unification. One of the puzzling features of nature's four forces is the huge range in their intrinsic strengths. The electromagnetic force has less than 1 percent of the strength of the strong force, the weak force is some thousand times feebler than that, and the gravitational force is some hundred million billion billion billion (10^-35) times weaker still. Following the pathbreaking and ultimately Nobel Prize—winning work of Glashow, Salam, and Weinberg that established a deep connection between the electromagnetic and weak forces (discussed in Chapter 5), in 1974 Glashow, together with his Harvard colleague Howard Georgi, suggested that an analogous connection might be forged with the strong force. Their work, which proposed a "grand unification" of three of the four forces, differed in one essential way from that of the electroweak theory: Whereas the electromagnetic and weak forces crystallized out of a more symmetric union when the temperature of the universe dropped to about a million billion degrees above absolute zero (10^15 Kelvin), Georgi and Glashow showed that the union with the strong force would have been apparent only at a temperature some ten trillion times higher—around ten billion billion billion degrees above absolute zero (10^28 Kelvin). From the point of view of energy, this is about a million billion times the mass of the proton, or about four orders of magnitude less than the Planck mass. Georgi and Glashow boldly took theoretical physics into an energy realm many orders of magnitude beyond that which anyone had previously dared explore.

    Subsequent work at Harvard by Georgi, Helen Quinn, and Weinberg in 1974 made the potential unity of the nongravitational forces within the grand unified framework even more manifest. As their contribution continues to play an important role in unifying the forces and in assessing the relevance of supersymmetry to the natural world, let's spend a moment explaining it.

    We are all aware that the electrical attraction between two oppositely charged particles or the gravitational attraction between two massive bodies gets stronger as the distance between the objects decreases. These are simple and well-known features of classical physics. There is a surprise, though, when we study the effect that quantum physics has on force strengths. Why should quantum mechanics have any effect at all? The answer, once again, lies in quantum fluctuations. When we examine the electric force field of an electron, for example, we are actually examining it through the "mist" of momentary particle-antiparticle eruptions and annihilations that are occurring all through the region of space surrounding it. Physicists some time ago realized that this seething mist of microscopic fluctuations obscures the full strength of the electron's force field, somewhat as a thin fog partially obscures the beacon of a lighthouse. But notice that as we get closer to the electron, we will have penetrated more of the cloaking particle-antiparticle mist and hence will be less subject to its diminishing influence. This implies that the strength of an electron's electric field will increase as we get closer to it.

    Physicists distinguish this quantum-mechanical increase in strength as we get closer to the electron from that known in classical physics by saying that the intrinsic strength of the electromagnetic force increases on shorter distance scales. This reflects that the strength increases not merely because we are closer to the electron but also because more of the electron's intrinsic electric field becomes visible. In fact, although we have focused on the electron, this discussion applies equally well to all electrically charged particles and is summarized by saying that quantum effects drive the strength of the electromagnetic force to get larger when examined on shorter distance scales.

    What about the other forces of the standard model? How do their intrinsic strengths vary with distance? In 1973, Gross and Frank Wilczek at Princeton, and, independently, David Politzer at Harvard, studied this question and found a surprising answer: The quantum cloud of particle eruptions and annihilations amplifies the strengths of the strong and weak forces. This implies that as we examine them on shorter distances, we penetrate more of this seething cloud and hence are subject to less of its amplification. And so, the strengths of these forces get weaker when they are probed on shorter distances.

    Georgi, Quinn, and Weinberg took this realization and ran with it to a remarkable end. They showed that when these effects of the quantum frenzy are carefully accounted for, the net result is that the strengths of all three nongravitational forces are driven together. Whereas the strengths of these forces are very different on scales accessible to current technology, Georgi, Quinn, and Weinberg argued that this difference is actually due to the different effect that the haze of microscopic quantum activity has on each force. Their calculations showed that if this haze is penetrated by examining the forces not on everyday scales but as they act on distances of about a hundredth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth (10^-29) of a centimeter (a mere factor of ten thousand larger than the Planck length), the three nongravitational force strengths appear to become equal.

    Although far removed from the realm of common experience, the high energy necessary to be sensitive to such small distances was characteristic of the roiling, hot early universe when it was about a thousandth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth (10^-39) of a second old—when its temperature was on the order of 10^28 Kelvin mentioned earlier. In somewhat the same way that a collection of disparate ingredients—pieces of metal, wood, rocks, minerals, and so on—all melt together and become a uniform, homogeneous plasma when heated to sufficiently high temperature, these theoretical works suggested that the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces all merge into one grand force at such immense temperatures. This is shown schematically in Figure 7.1. 6

    Figure 7.1 The strengths of the three nongravitational forces as they operate on ever shorter distance scales—equivalently, as they act on ever higher energy processes.

    Although we do not have the technology to probe such minute distance scales or to produce such scorching temperatures, since 1974 experimentalists have significantly refined the measured strengths of the three nongravitational forces under everyday conditions. These data—the starting points for the three force-strength curves in Figure 7.1—are the input data for the quantum-mechanical extrapolations of Georgi, Quinn, and Weinberg. In 1991, Ugo Amaldi of CERN, Wim de Boer and Hermann Fürstenau of the University of Karlsruhe, Germany, recalculated the Georgi, Quinn, and Weinberg extrapolations making use of these experimental refinements and showed two significant things. First, the strengths of the three nongravitational forces almost agree, but not quite at tiny distance scales (equivalently, high energy/high temperature) as shown in Figure 7.2. Second, this tiny but undeniable discrepancy in their strengths vanishes if supersymmetry is incorporated. The reason is that the new superpartner particles required by supersymmetry contribute additional quantum fluctuations, and these fluctuations are just right to nudge the strengths of the forces to converge with one another.

    Figure 7.2 A refinement of the calculation of force strengths reveals that without supersymmetry they almost, but not quite, meet.
    To many physicists, it is extremely difficult to believe that nature would choose the forces so that they almost, but not quite, have strengths that microscopically unify—microscopically become equal. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in which the final piece is slightly misshapen and won't cleanly fit into its appointed position. Supersymmetry deftly refines its shape so that all pieces firmly lock into place.

    Another aspect of this latter realization is that it provides a possible answer to the question, Why haven't we discovered any of the superpartner particles? The calculations that lead to the convergence of the force strengths, as well as other considerations studied by a number of physicists, indicate that the superpartner particles must be a good deal heavier than the known particles. Although no definitive predictions can be made, studies show that the superpartner particles might be a thousand times as massive as a proton, if not heavier. As even our state-of-the-art accelerators cannot quite reach such energies, this provides an explanation for why these particles have not, as yet, been discovered. In Chapter 9, we will return to a discussion of the experimental prospects for determining in the near future whether supersymmetry truly is a property of our world.

    Of course, the reasons we have given for believing in—or at least not yet rejecting—supersymmetry are far from airtight. We have described how supersymmetry elevates our theories to their most symmetric form—but you might suggest that the universe does not care about attaining the most symmetric form that is mathematically possible. We have noted the important technical point that supersymmetry relieves us from the delicate task of tuning numerical parameters in the standard model to avoid subtle quantum problems—but you might argue that the true theory describing nature may very well walk the fine edge between self-consistency and self-destruction. We have discussed how supersymmetry modifies the intrinsic strengths of the three nongravitational forces at tiny distances in just the right way for them to merge together into a grand unified force—but you might argue, again, that nothing in the design of nature dictates that these force strengths must exactly match on microscopic scales. And finally, you might suggest that a simpler explanation for why the super-partner particles have never been found is that our universe is not super-symmetric and, therefore, the superpartners do not exist.

    No one can refute any of these responses. But the case for super-symmetry is strengthened immensely when we consider its role in string theory.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe