Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Hail the XENON excess

Where were we...  It's been years since particle physics last made an exciting headline. The result announced today by the XENON collaboration is a welcome breath of fresh air. It's too early to say whether it heralds a real breakthrough, or whether it's another bubble to be burst. But it certainly gives food for thought for particle theorists, enough to keep hep-ph going for the next few months.

The XENON collaboration was operating a 1-ton xenon detector in an underground lab in Italy. Originally, this line of experiments was devised to search for hypothetical heavy particles constituting dark matter, so called WIMPs. For that they offer a basically background-free environment, where a signal of dark matter colliding with xenon nuclei would stand out like a lighthouse. However all WIMP searches so far have returned zero, null, and nada. Partly out of boredom and despair, the xenon-based collaborations began thinking out-of-the-box to find out what else their shiny instruments could be good for. One idea was to search for axions. These are hypothetical superlight and superweakly interacting particles, originally devised to plug a certain theoretical hole in the Standard Model of particle physics. If they exist, they should be copiously produced in the core of the Sun with energies of order a keV. This is too little to perceptibly knock an atomic nucleus, as xenon weighs over a hundred GeV. However, many variants of the axion scenario, in particular the popular DFSZ model, predicts axions interacting with electrons. Then a keV axion may occasionally hit the cloud of electrons orbiting xenon atoms, sending one to an excited level or ionizing the atom. These electron-recoil events can be identified principally by the ratio of ionization and scintillation signals, which is totally different than for WIMP-like nuclear recoils. This is no longer a background-free search, as radioactive isotopes present inside the detector may lead to the same signal. Therefore collaboration have to search for a peak of electron-recoil events at keV energies.     

This is what they saw in the XENON1t data
Energy spectrum of electron-recoil events measured by the XENON1T experiment. 
The expected background is approximately flat from 30 keV down to the detection threshold at 1 keV, below which it falls off abruptly. On the other hand, the data seem to show a signal component growing towards low energies, and possibly peaking at 1-2 keV. Concentrating on the 1-7 keV range (so with a bit of cherry-picking), 285 events is observed in the data compared to an expected 232 events from the background-only fit. In purely statistical terms, this is a 3.5 sigma excess.

Assuming it's new physics, what does this mean? XENON shows that there is a flux of light relativistic particles arriving into their detector.  The peak of the excess corresponds to the temperature in the core of the Sun (15 million kelvin = 1.3 keV), so our star is a natural source of these particles (but at this point XENON cannot prove they arrive from the Sun). Furthermore, the  particles must couple to electrons, because they can knock xenon's electrons off their orbits. Several theoretical models contain particles matching that description. Axions are the primary suspects, because today they are arguably the best motivated extension of the Standard Model. They are naturally light, because their mass is protected by built-in symmetries, and for the same reason their coupling to matter must be extremely suppressed.  For QCD axions the defining feature is their coupling to gluons, but in generic constructions one also finds the pseudoscalar-type interaction between the axion and electrons e:

To explain the excess, one needs the coupling g to be of order 10^-12, which is totally natural in this context. But axions are by no means the only possibility. A related option is the dark photon, which differs from the axion by certain technicalities, in particular it has spin-1 instead of spin-0. The palette of viable models is certainly much broader, with  the details to be found soon on arXiv.           

A distinct avenue to explain the XENON excess is neutrinos. Here, the advantage is that we already know that neutrinos exist, and that the Sun emits some 10^38 of them every second. In fact, the background model used by XENON includes 220 neutrino-induced events in the 1-210 keV range.
However, in the standard picture, the interactions of neutrinos with electrons are too weak to explain the excess. To that end one has to either increase their flux (so fiddle with the solar model), or to increase their interaction strength with matter (so go beyond the Standard Model). For example, neutrinos could interact with electrons via a photon intermediary. While neutrinos do not have an electric charge, uncharged particles can still couple to photons via dipole or higher-multipole moments. It is possible that new physics (possibly the same that generates the neutrino masses) also pumps up the neutrino magnetic dipole moment. This can be described in a model-independent way by adding a non-renormalizable dimension-7 operator to the Standard Model, e.g.
To explain the XENON excess we need d of order 10^-6. That mean new physics responsible for the dipole moment must be just behind the corner, below 100 TeV or so.

How confident should we be that it's new physics? Experience has shown again and again that anomalies in new physics searches have, with a very large confidence, a mundane origin that does not involve exotic particles or interactions.  In this case, possible explanations are, in order of likelihood,  1) small contamination of the detector, 2) some other instrumental effect that the collaboration hasn't thought of, 3) the ghost of Roberto Peccei, 4) a genuine signal of new physics. In fact, the collaboration itself is hedging for the first option, as they cannot exclude the presence of a small amount of  tritium in the detector, which would produce a signal similar to the observed excess. Moreover, there are a few orange flags for the new physics interpretation:
  1.  Simplest models explaining the excess are excluded by astrophysical observations. If axions can be produced in the Sun at the rate suggested by the XENON result, they can be produced at even larger rates in hotter stars, e.g. in red giants or white dwarfs. This would lead to excessive cooling of these stars, in conflict with observations. The upper limit on the axion-electron coupling g from red giants is 3*10^-13, which is an order of magnitude  less than what is needed for the XENON excess.  The neutrino magnetic moment explanations faces a similar difficulty. Of course, astrophysical limits reside in a different epistemological reality; it is not unheard of that they are relaxed by an order of magnitude or disappear completely. But certainly this is something to worry about.  
  2.  At a more psychological level, a small excess over a large background near a detection threshold.... sounds familiar. We've seen that before in the case of the DAMA and CoGeNT dark matter experiments, at it didn't turn out well.     
  3. The bump is at 1.5 keV, which is *twice* 750 eV.  
So, as usual, more data, time, and patience is needed to verify the new physics hypothesis. On the experimental side, the near future is very optimistic, with the XENONnT, LUX-ZEPLIN, and PandaX-4T experiments all jostling for position to confirm the excess and earn eternal glory. On the theoretical side, the big question is whether the stellar cooling constraints can be avoided, without too many epicycles. It would be also good to know whether the particle responsible for the XENON excess could be related to dark matter and/or to other existing anomalies, in particular to the B-meson ones. For answers, tune in to arXiv, from tomorrow on.