Normally aloof particles of light seen ricocheting off each other

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Cross two flashlight beams and they pass right through one another. That’s because particles of light, or photons, are mostly antisocial — they don’t interact with each other. But now scientists have spotted evidence of photons bouncing off other photons at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle physics lab in Geneva.

“This is a very basic process. It’s never been observed before, and here it is finally emerging from the data,” says theoretical physicist John Ellis of King’s College London who was not involved with the study. Researchers with the ATLAS experiment at the LHC report the result August 14 in Nature Physics.

Because photons have no electric charge, they shouldn’t notice one another’s presence. But there’s an exception to that rule. According to quantum mechanics, photons can briefly transform into transient pairs of electrically charged particles and antiparticles — such as an electron and a positron — before reverting back to photons. Predictions made more than 80 years ago suggest that this phenomenon allows photons to interact and ricochet away from one another.

This light-by-light scattering is extremely rare, making it difficult to measure. But photons with more energy interact more often, providing additional chances to spot the scattering. To produce such energetic photons, scientists slammed beams of lead nuclei together in the LHC. Photons flit in and out of existence in the lead nuclei’s strong electromagnetic fields. When two nuclei got close enough that their electromagnetic fields overlapped, two photons could interact with one another and be scattered away.

To measure the interaction, ATLAS scientists sifted through their data to find collisions in which only two photons — the two that scattered away from the collision — appeared in the aftermath. “That’s the trickiest part of the whole thing,” says physicist Peter Steinberg of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., a member of the ATLAS collaboration. The scientists had to ensure that, in their enormous, highly sensitive particle detector, only two photons appeared, and convince themselves that no other particles had gone unaccounted for. The researchers found 13 such events over 19 days of data collection. Although other processes can mimic light-by-light scattering, the researchers predict that only a few such events were included in the sample.

The number of scattering events the researchers found agrees with the predictions of the standard model, physicists’ theory of particle physics. But a more precise measurement of the interaction might differ from expectations. If it does, that could hint at the existence of new, undiscovered particles.

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