“A” is for axion (Alphabet of Cosmology)

Wot’s all this, now?

Today I begin a new feature, which I will try to update once a week: the Alphabet of Cosmology. In these entries, I’ll highlight a  concept, experiment, or observation in cosmology—the study of the history, contents, and evolution of the Universe—that may not be as familiar to non-specialists.

(I stole borrowed this idea from Brian Switek, whose Dinosaur Alphabet series is a great way to learn about dinosaur species that aren’t the usual famous ones covered in books or on TV shows.)

The dark matter problem in boxer brief

About 80% of the mass in the Universe isn’t the same stuff familiar from daily life. The name we give our ignorance is dark matter, and we generally assume it to be a particle of some kind. We see its effects in the motion of stars and gas in galaxies, in the way galaxies cluster together, and in the relic light from the Universe’s infancy. However, the identity of dark matter is still unknown; while we can easily say a lot about what it isn’t, we don’t know what it is.

Here’s what we know (at least a partial list): dark matter is not any ordinary particle of the Standard Model of particles and interactions. It’s not atoms, it’s not neutrinos, it’s not comprised of quarks or electrons or their cousins. A better name than “dark matter” might be “invisible matter”, since light shines right through it little or no effect. That means dark matter doesn’t interact via the electromagnetic force (which governs light); most physicists suspect it probably interacts using the weak force, and as with everything, it certainly interacts gravitationally. It’s also probably “cold”, meaning it doesn’t move at fast speeds compared to the expansion of the Universe, and doesn’t interact very strongly either with itself or with ordinary matter.

Beyond that, cosmologists are a bit stumped. We have some good ideas, though, motivated by theory, and potentially (if not easily) detectable. I’ll talk about an experiment to detect a particular and popular dark matter candidate particle called a WIMP in the entry for “C”. However, let’s talk first about another candidate, predicted by theory, which has gotten less attention: the axion.

A Higgs-ish particle for dark matter?

When axions were first proposed, dark matter wasn’t the motivation at all. Instead, they were formulated to solve a sticky problem in quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory that describes quarks—the particles comprising protons, neutrons, and so forth—and gluons, the particles binding the quarks together. In the original formulation of QCD, the theory predicted a strong violation of a symmetry of nature: the combination of charge (C) and parity (P). Charge symmetry happens when physical processes don’t vary on the exchange of particles with their antimatter counterparts; parity is mirror-image symmetry, relative to the spins of the particles involved.

Together, the symmetry is called CP, and it is violated by the weak nuclear force in many interactions, as described by the electroweak theory. However, QCD is the theory of the strong force, and a lot of CP violation would mess up what we already know about particles like the neutron. Therefore, CP violation either needs to be less significant, or one of the quarks needs to be massless. Since we know all the quarks have mass, something must be added to QCD to shrink down CP violation to a reasonable level.

It turns out that the mechanism for that kind of thing is similar to the mechanism giving masses to particles in the electroweak theory. If that sounds familiar, it should: that’s known as the Higgs mechanism, and one consequence is the prediction of a new particle, the Higgs boson. The new particle to make CP violation work without breaking QCD is called the axion.

Unlike Higgs bosons, axions would have been produced in huge numbers in the Big Bang, and are stable. (The Higgs, by contrast, is so unstable we don’t see it in the detectors, only what it decays into.) Axions are electrically neutral bosons—meaning they are particles unconstrained by the Pauli exclusion principle, so they can all pile into the same quantum configuration without a problem. Axions also couple very weakly to ordinary matter.

According to one theory, in the early Universe axions experienced a kind of friction (for reasons too complex for this post), slowing them down by a huge margin. That made them form a Bose-Einstein condensate: a collapse of vast numbers of particles into a cold fluid, in which they act collectively like a single particle.

In other words, axions could be candidates for dark matter: they’re cold, they interact weakly, they’re stable, and they’re potentially numerous. The numbers are doubly important, because (unlike other dark matter candidates) they’re very low mass, much less massive than electrons. Unlike neutrinos, which are similarly low-mass, axions don’t interact very well with atomic nuclei; as hard as neutrinos are to detect, axions are much harder, to the point where they haven’t been found yet. The problem is complicated by the fact that theory doesn’t predict a precise mass for axions. Even worse, axions might exist and yet be too massive to be dark matter.

Prospecting for axions

The ADMX axion detector at the University of Washington.
The ADMX axion detector at the University of Washington.

The best hope for axion-hunting comes from one of their weirdest properties: in the presence of really intense magnetic fields, photons can turn into axions, and vice versa. The Axion Dark Matter eXperiment (ADMX) uses a very powerful, ultracooled magnet to try to turn hypothetical dark matter axions into microwave photons. While the ADMX team haven’t been successful, their method is on sound footing from a theoretical standpoint. As with so many other delicate particle experiments, the key is controlling noise, which may swamp what little signal there may be.

Since axions may or may not actually exist, and may or may not have masses corresponding to the experimental sensitivity of the ADMX detector, it’s a bit of a battle. However, the situation isn’t really better for alternative dark matter candidates: we’re hunting for something without specific theoretical predictions to guide us, just a set of general principles that may or may not be right. If you ask me (which you didn’t, but you’re reading my post, so nyah!), axions probably exist, since they’re the most rational solution to the CP problem in QCD.

I also admit that axions are my favorite dark matter candidate particle. I have no physics reason to say that, no deep insight into the inner workings of the cosmos to tell me that. (If I thought I did, you’d be justified in sending me to the Funny Farm.) However, axions are satisfying in many ways: they solve a problem in the Standard Model that needs to be solved and could resolve the longest-standing mystery in cosmology, the dark matter problem. Time and patience will see if my intuition is correct.


11 responses to ““A” is for axion (Alphabet of Cosmology)”

  1. Nice post! I’ll add another reason to like axions: they’re pretty generically predicted in string theory models. (Unfortunately, the *kind* of axions usually predicted in string theory models don’t work for dark matter at all, and you have to go through all sorts of tuning and theoretical backflips to make them work out… but it’s nice that something very axion-like is usually there.) When I started my PhD work on axions, they sounded like the ideal dark matter candidate for all the reasons you give above. I’m much more skeptical of their existence and usefulness now, for reasons that would be complicated to discuss in a blog comment, but it’s certainly true that axions (as particles that might actually exist in the Universe) are more motivated by theory than a lot of other dark matter candidates.

    1. Well, as a string theory agnostic, I don’t really care if axions are important to it or not. ;) Also, I wanted to focus on axions as dark matter candidates, though I agree: there are some reasons to doubt they’re the real answer (despite my preference).

  2. I dislike dark matter as a whole and was rather fond of MOND when it appeared on the scene. I’d still prefer dark matter to not be a ‘thing’ and there’s still some chance of that, but we’ll just have to see what the future holds in evidence.

    1. MOND of course has more than its share of problems: it fails for galaxy clusters and the cosmic microwave background (CMB), unless you also include some form of dark matter. So, MOND doesn’t really solve anything. Whether you think of dark matter as “natural” or not depends I think on what candidate ends up winning the race. Some candidates like axions feel pretty natural, at least to me, since they solve a problem in the Standard Model. As Katie said, though, there are good reasons to think that axions may not actually exist, and even if they do exist, they may not be dark matter (or not all of dark matter).

      In other words, I wouldn’t put my hopes in dark matter not existing. As un-nice as dark matter is, it explains a lot more than any current alternative model. The CMB alone makes it hard to accept any alternative scenario, and my colleague Ethan Siegel points out that the power spectrum – the description of how matter clumps at the largest scales – simply can’t do without dark matter either:

      1. Indeed, I would say I put all my hopes in dark matter not existing, but my expectations in it existing. Sometimes the universe can be so inconsiderate towards my sensibilities.

  3. Reblogged this on Bowler Hat Science and commented:

    I just started a new series: the Alphabet of Cosmology! Go check out the first entry: A is for Axion.

  4. Reblogged this on Catch 26 and commented:
    At last, an Alphabet of Cosmology! First off: “a hypothetical subatomic paticle postulated to account for the rarity of processes which break charge-parity symmetry”…according to Wordflex. I understand “from axial + -on”. Maybe these posting will initiate a glimmer of understanding :)

  5. […] matter. It’s independent of galaxy rotations or galaxy clusters, or specific theories about what particle comprises dark matter. What the power spectrum tells us is that 84% of matter doesn’t behave like baryons: it […]

  6. […] Turner, who coined it. However, while dark matter (which as I’ve pointed out before would be better called “invisible matter”) does appear to be matter—it clusters and attracts ordinary baryonic matter […]

  7. […] for dark matter particles is an inherently complicated thing; see my piece for BBC Future and an earlier blog post for some of the challenges. However, many physicists suspect DM belongs to a particle type predicted […]

  8. […] Physicists are inventive animals, so suffice to say there are theoretical possibilities, including axions and other more exotic particles. However, with such a long minimum photon lifetime, we won’t […]

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