Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 10, 2023

The conservation conundrum

A major underpinning of our understanding of physics has to do with symmetry and conservation laws.

Both have to do with order, balance, and the concept that you can't get something for nothing.  A lot of the most basic research in theoretical physics is driven by the assumption that despite the seeming complexity and chaos in the universe, at its heart is a deep simplicity, harmony, and beauty. 

The mathematical expression of this concept reaches its pinnacle in the laws of conservation.

You undoubtedly ran into conservation laws in your high school science classes.  The law of the conservation of matter and energy (you can move matter and energy around and change its form, but the total amount stays the same).  Conservation of charge (the total charge present at the beginning of a reaction is equal to the total charge present at the end; this one is one of the fundamental rules governing chemistry).  Conservation of momentum, conservation of spin, conservation of parity.

All of these are fairly well understood, and physicists use them constantly to make predictions about how interactions in the real world will occur.  Add to them the mathematical models of quantum physics, and you have what might well be the single most precise system ever devised by human minds.  The predictions of this system match the actual experimental measurements to a staggering accuracy of ten decimal places.  (This is analogous to your taking a tape measure to figure out the length of a two-by-four, and your answer being correct to the nearest billionth of a meter.)

So far, so good.  But there's only one problem with this.

Symmetry and conservation laws provide no explanation of how there's something instead of nothing.

We know that photons (zero charge, zero mass) can produce pairs of particles -- one matter, one antimatter, which (by definition) have opposite charges.  These particles usually crash back together and mutually annihilate within a fraction of a second, resulting in a photon with the same energy as the original one had, as per the relevant conservation laws.  Immediately after the Big Bang, the universe (such as it was) was filled with extremely high energy photons, so this pair production was going at a furious rate, with such a roiling sea of particles flying about that some of them survived being annihilated.  This, it's thought, is the origin of the matter we see around us, the matter we and everything else are made of.

But what we know about symmetry and conservation suggests that there should have been exactly equal amounts of matter and antimatter created, so very quickly, there shouldn't have been anything left but photons.  Instead, we see an imbalance -- an asymmetry -- favoring matter.  Fortunately for us, of course.

So there was some matter left over after everything calmed down.  But why?

One possibility is that when we look out at the distant stars and galaxies, some of them are actually antimatter.  On the surface, it seems like there'd be no way to tell; except for the fact that every particle that makes it up would have the opposite properties (i.e. protons would have a negative charge, electrons a positive charge, and so on), antimatter would have identical properties to matter.  (In fact, experimentally-produced antihydrogen was shown in 2016 to have the same energy levels, and therefore exactly the same spectrum, as ordinary hydrogen.)  From a distance, therefore, it should look exactly like matter does.

So could there be antimatter planets, stars, and galaxies out there?  Maybe even with Evil Major Don West With A Beard?

The answer is almost certainly no.  The reason is that if there was a galaxy out there made of antimatter, then between it and the nearest ordinary matter galaxy, there'd be a boundary where the antimatter thrown off by the antimatter galaxy would be constantly running into the matter thrown off by the ordinary galaxy.  So we'd see a sheet dividing the two, radiating x-rays and gamma rays, where the matter and antimatter were colliding and mutually annihilating.  Nothing of the sort has ever been observed, so the conclusion is that what we see out in space, out to the farthest quasars, is all made of matter.

This, though, leaves us with the conundrum of how this happened.  What generated the asymmetry between matter and antimatter during the Big Bang?

One possibility, physicists thought, could be that the particles of matter themselves are asymmetrical.  If the shape or charge distribution of (say) an electron has a slight asymmetry, this would point to there being a hitherto-unknown asymmetry in the laws of physics that might favor matter over antimatter.  This conjecture is, in fact, why the topic comes up today; a paper last week in Science described an experiment at the University of Colorado - Boulder to measure an electron's dipole moment, the offset of charges within an electron.  Lots of molecules have a nonzero dipole moment; it's water's high dipole moment that results in water molecules having a positive end and a negative end, so they stick together like little magnets.  A lot of water's odd properties come from the fact that it's highly polar, including why it hurts like a sonofabitch when you do a belly flop off a diving board -- you're using your body to break simultaneously all of those linked molecules.

What the team did was to create a strong magnetic field around an extremely pure collection of hafnium fluoride molecules.  If electrons did have a nonzero dipole moment -- i.e., they were slightly egg-shaped -- the magnetic field would cause them to pivot so they were aligned with the field, and the resulting torque on the molecules would be measurable.

They found that to the limit of their considerable measuring ability, electrons are perfectly spherical and have an exactly zero dipole moment.

"I don’t think Guinness tracks this, but if they did, we’d have a new world record," said Tanya Roussy, who led the study.  "The new measurement is so precise that, if an electron were the size of Earth, any asymmetry in its shape would have to be on a scale smaller than an atom."

That's what I call accuracy.

On the other hand, it means we're back to the drawing board with respect to why there's something instead of nothing, which as a scientific question, is kind of a big deal.  At the moment, there don't seem to be any other particularly good candidates out there for an explanation, which is an uncomfortable position to be in.  Either there's something major we're missing in the laws of physics -- which, as I said, otherwise give stunningly accurate predictions of real-world experimental results -- or we're left with the even less satisfying answer of "it just happened that way."

But that's the wonderful thing about science, isn't it?  Scientists never write the last word on a subject and assume nothing will ever change thereafter.  There will always be new information, new perspectives, and new models, refining what we know and gradually aligning better and better with this weird, chaotic universe we live in.

So I'm not writing off the physicists yet.  They have a damn good track record of solving what appear to be intractable problems -- my guess is that sooner or later, they'll figure out the answer to this one.


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