Cosmic Science

Muon mystery, MindPong and a lost city revealed

Egyptian archaeologists unearth a 3,000-year-old lost city, magnetic readings from muons could lead to new physics, and Elon Musk’s Neuralink venture has monkeys playing video games with neural impulses. Get the details on the Web:

‘Lost Golden City’ found in Luxor

Egypt’s best-known archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, announced today that the long-lost ruins of a 3,000-year-old city have been found in Luxor. The sprawling settlement dates to the reign of Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says it continued to be used by Tutankhamun and his successor, King Ay.

The city was at one time called “The Rise of Aten,” reflecting the religious shift brought about by Akhenaten. Today it’s being called the “Lost Golden City.” During the past seven months of excavation, several neighborhoods have been uncovered, but the administrative and residential district hasn’t yet been brought forth from the sands. “The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archaeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun,” said Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University.

Previously: ‘Lost cities’ teach lessons for future cities

Muon anomaly sparks deep questions

Anomalous results from a Fermilab experiment have added to the suspicion that scientists have finally found a flaw in one of their most successful theories, the Standard Model of particle physics. The anomalies have to do with the strength of the magnetic field for a weightier cousin of the electron, known as the muon. Data from Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment supported previous findings from Brookhaven National Laboratory that the muon’s magnetism is ever-so-slightly stronger than predicted by the Standard Model — just 2.5 parts per billion stronger.

If the results hold up, physicists might have to consider far-out explanations — for example, the existence of scads of particles that haven’t yet been detected, or a totally new take on the foundations of physics. But the findings will require further confirmation. Grand discoveries, like 2012’s detection of the Higgs boson, typically have to be confirmed to a confidence level of 5-sigma. Now the muon findings have hit 4.2-sigma — which doubters would say is still substandard.

Previously: Could the God Equation be our ultimate salvation?

Elon Musk touts mind control

Neuralink, the brain-implant venture funded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is showing off an AI system that lets a macaque monkey play a game of Pong with its mind alone. Researchers monitored the monkey’s neural impulses as it operated a joystick to play the game, and then correlated the firing patterns of the neurons with the gameplay. Eventually, the brain-monitoring system eliminated the need for the monkey to use the joystick at all.

In a Twitter exchange, Musk said human trials of the mind-reading system would begin, “hopefully, later this year.” He said Neuralink’s first brain-implant product would enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs. “Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again,” Musk tweeted.

Previously: ‘Three Little Pigs’ demonstrate Neuralink’s brain implant


What happens to Higgs bosons? Here’s a clue

Higgs boson decay
A diagram shows a proton-proton collision in the Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS detector that produced a Higgs boson, which quickly decayed into two bottom quarks (bb, shown as blue cones). The collision also produced a W boson that decayed into a muon (μ) and a neutrino (ν). (ATLAS / CERN Graphic)

It’s been six years since physicists at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, but they’re just now confirming what most of the mysterious subatomic particles do when they decay.

They’re transformed into bottom quarks, they announced today.

That’s not exactly a surprise: The mainstream theory of particle physics, known as the Standard Model, suggests that’s the most common course followed by the Higgs, which exists in the particle collider for only an instant before breaking down. About 60 percent of the Higgs bosons created in high-energy are thought to turn into a pair of bottom quarks, which is No. 2 on the mass scale for six “flavors” of quarks.

It took several years for researchers to nail down the evidence to a standard significance of 5-sigma — the same standard that applied to the Higgs boson’s discovery in 2012.

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Electron ion collider gets thumbs up from experts

report from the National Academies endorses the idea of building a large-scale electron ion collider to probe the next level of subatomic mysteries. Such a collider would smash electrons into beams of protons or heavier ions — in contrast with the Large Hadron Collider, which smashes protons together.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.


Physicists add top-quark twist to Higgs boson’s tale

Experiments at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider have produced hard-to-come-by evidence of interactions between the Higgs boson and top quarks. The findings, announced today at a conference in Bologna, Italy, “give a strong indication that the Higgs boson has a key role in the large value of the top quark mass,” Karl Jakobs, spokesperson for the LHC’s ATLAS collaboration, said in a news release.

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Study could point to piece in antimatter puzzle

Experiment cryostat
Researchers work on the delicate wiring of a cryostat, which chills the germanium detectors at the heart of the Majorana Demonstrator experiment. (Sanford Underground Research Facility Photo / Matthew Kapust)

An experiment conducted deep underground in an old South Dakota gold mine has given scientists hope that a future detector could help solve one of physics’ biggest puzzles: why the universe exists at all.

Put another way, the puzzle has to do with the fact that the universe is dominated by matter.

That may seem self-evident, but it’s not what’s predicted by Standard Model of particle physics as currently understood. Instead, current theory suggests that the big bang should have given rise to equal parts of matter and antimatter, which would annihilate each other within an instant.

Scientists suspect that there must have been something about the big bang that gave matter an edge more than 13 billion years ago. So far, the mechanism hasn’t been identified — but one leading theory proposes that the properties of neutrinos have something to do with it.

The problem is, neutrinos interact so weakly with other particles that it’s hard to detect what they’re doing. The experiment conducted in the nearly mile-deep Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota was aimed at figuring out whether a detector could be shielded well enough from background radiation to spot the effect that scientists are looking for.

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Physicists detect Big Void in Egypt’s Great Pyramid

Pyramid cutaway
A cutaway view of the Pyramid of Khufu shows the location of the “Big Void” as well as a corridor close to the pyramid’s north face. Click on the image for a larger view. (ScanPyramids Illustration)

An international team of researchers has detected a mysterious, previously unknown void deep inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid that may be as large as an art gallery space.

The anomalous space, known as the ScanPyramids Big Void, showed up on imagery produced by tracking concentrations of subatomic particles called muons as they zoomed through the pyramid’s stones.

“We don’t know if this Big Void is made by one structure, or several successive structures,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute and co-founder of the ScanPyramids campaign. “What we are sure about is that this Big Void is there, that it is impressive [and] that it was not expected, as far as I know, by any kind of theory.”

Tayoubi and his colleagues report the discovery in a paper published online today by the journal Nature.

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Collider gets set to take on antimatter mystery

Image: Belle II detector
Scientists and technicians insert one of the optical components into the iTOP particle identification detector at the SuperKEKB accelerator in Japan. The “Imaging Time of Propagation” apparatus, or iTOP, is part of SuperKEKB’s Belle II detector. (Credit: PNNL)

What happened to all the antimatter? A particle-smasher in Japan is well on its way to addressing that question and others on the frontier of physics.

The SuperKEKB accelerator is designed to smash together tightly focused beams of electrons and anti-electrons (better known as positrons) and track the subatomic particles that wink in and out of existence as a result.

The collider will follow up on an earlier round of experiments at the KEK laboratory in Tsukuba. Over the past five years, KEK’s 1.9-mile-round (3-kilometer-round) underground ring has been upgraded to produce collisions at a rate 40 times higher than the earlier KEKB experiments did. Europe’s Large Hadron Collider may smash protons together at higher energies, but SuperKEKB will trump the LHC when it comes to the “Intensity Frontier.”

On Feb. 10, scientists circulated a beam of positrons around the SuperKEKB ring at nearly the speed of light. Then, on Feb. 26, they sent a separate beam of electrons at similar velocities, but going in the opposite direction. These “first turns” serve as major milestones on the way to next year’s first physics run, when both beams will circulate simultaneously and smash into each other in SuperKEKB’s upgraded Belle II detector.

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LHC readings intrigue physicists: Stay tuned

Image: Diphoton excess
A computer graphic shows the spray of particles created by a proton collision in the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS detector. The two green lines indicate the emission of two photons. Physicists say that could be part of an intriguing pattern, or merely a coincidence. (Thomas McCauley / CERN / CMS)

The Higgs boson is the biggest find of the century in particle physics, but for the past few weeks, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider have been considering whether there’s a mystery that’s even bigger. Or at least more massive.

The potential mystery has to do with a pattern of particle decay that results in the emission of two photons. The readings collected so far by the teams using the ATLAS and CMS detectors point to a slight “bump” in the expected pattern.

That may hint at the existence of a previously undetected particle with a mass of about 750 billion electron volts – six times heavier than the Higgs, French physicist Adam Falkowski (a.k.a. Jester) writes in his Resonaances blog.

Could it be a second Higgs boson? Evidence for gravitons or extra dimensions? Ever since the findings were made public three weeks ago, theories have been flying around like speeding muons, and with good reason. “If the diphoton excess is really a new particle, we are basically guaranteed to find other phenomena beyond the Standard Model,” Falkowski says.

However, the two-photon excess may be merely a coincidence – the sort of pattern that pops up in an early stage of data collection, but fades away when more readings are factored into the findings.

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LHC milestone re-ignites doomsday talk

Image: ALICE collision
This computer graphic shows one of the first collisions recorded between two lead ions at the Large Hadron Collider’s top energy. The energy in the center-of-mass system is approximately a quadrillion electron-volts. (Credit: CERN / ALICE Collaboration)

The Large Hadron Collider set another record for particle-smashing energy levels this week – which set off another round of hyped-up rumblings about the end of the world.

Before the LHC’s startup in 2008, the Internet was set abuzz with worries that high-energy collisions could create globe-gobbling black holes or cosmos-wrecking strangelets. Protests were mounted, lawsuits were filed, and physicists at Europe’s CERN particle physics center had to explain in depth why the nightmare scenarios were nothing more than nightmares. Once the collider went into operation, the lawsuits were dismissed and the hand-wringing settled down.

Now the world’s largest collider is operating at near its design limits, and this week, CERN reported that lead-ion collisions in the LHC’s ALICE detectorreached energies beyond a quadrillion electron-volts – a level also known as 1 peta-electron-volt, or 1 PeV.

“This energy is that of a bumblebee hitting us on the cheek on a summer day. But the energy is concentrated in a volume that is approximately 10 -27 (a billion-billion-billion) times smaller,” Jens Jørgen Gaardhøje, professor at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and head of the Danish research group within the ALICE experiment, said in a news release.

At first blush, a quadrillion electron-volts sounds like a huge ramp-up from 13 trillion to 14 trillion electron-volts, or 13 to 14 TeV, the traditionally quoted figures for the high end of the LHC’s collision energy. That’s what set off the doomsayers. In the weeks leading up to the ALICE collisions, there was a drumbeat of postings claiming that “CERN LIED” and warning that 1-PeV smashups would have catastrophic consequences.

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