Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Proton's weak charge, and what's it for

In the particle world the LHC still attracts the most attention, but in parallel there is ongoing progress at the low-energy frontier. A new episode in that story is the Qweak experiment in Jefferson Lab in the US, which just published their final results.  Qweak was shooting a beam of 1 GeV electrons on a hydrogen (so basically proton) target to determine how the scattering rate depends on electron's polarization. Electrons and protons interact with each other via the electromagnetic and weak forces. The former is much stronger, but it is parity-invariant, i.e. it does not care about the direction of polarization. On the other hand, since the classic Wu experiment in 1956, the weak force is known to violate parity. Indeed, the Standard Model postulates that the Z boson, who mediates the weak force,  couples with different strength to left- and right-handed particles. The resulting asymmetry between the low-energy electron-proton scattering cross sections of left- and right-handed polarized electrons is predicted to be at the 10^-7 level. That has been experimentally observed many times before, but Qweak was able to measure it with the best precision to date (relative 4%), and at a lower momentum transfer than the previous experiments.   

What is the point of this exercise? Low-energy parity violation experiments are often sold as precision measurements of the so-called Weinberg angle, which is a function of the electroweak gauge couplings - the fundamental parameters of the Standard Model. I don't like too much that perspective because the electroweak couplings, and thus the Weinberg angle, can be more precisely determined from other observables, and Qweak is far from achieving a competing accuracy. The utility of Qweak is better visible in the effective theory picture. At low energies one can parameterize the relevant parity-violating interactions between protons and electrons by the contact term
where v ≈ 246 GeV, and QW is the so-called weak charge of the proton. Such interactions arise thanks to the Z boson in the Standard Model being exchanged between electrons and quarks that make up the proton. At low energies, the exchange diagram is well approximated by the contact term above with QW = 0.0708  (somewhat smaller than the "natural" value QW ~ 1  due to numerical accidents making the Z boson effectively protophobic). The measured polarization asymmetry in electron-proton scattering can be re-interpreted as a determination of the proton weak charge: QW = 0.0719 ± 0.0045, in perfect agreement with the Standard Model prediction.

New physics may affect the magnitude of the proton weak charge in two distinct ways. One is by altering the strength with which the Z boson couples to matter. This happens for example when light quarks mix with their heavier exotic cousins with different quantum numbers, as is often the case in the models from the Randall-Sundrum family. More generally, modified couplings to the Z boson could be a sign of quark compositeness. Another way is by generating new parity-violating contact interactions between electrons and quarks. This can be a result of yet unknown short-range forces which distinguish left- and right-handed electrons. Note that the observation of lepton flavor violation in B-meson decays can be interpreted as a hint for existence of such forces (although for that purpose the new force carriers do not need to couple to 1st generation quarks).  Qweak's measurement puts novel limits on such broad scenarios. Whatever the origin, simple dimensional analysis allows one to estimate  the possible change of the proton weak charge as 
   where M* is the mass scale of new particles beyond the Standard Model, and g* is their coupling strength to matter. Thus, Qweak can constrain new weakly coupled particles with masses up to a few TeV, or even 50 TeV particles if they are strongly coupled to matter (g*~4π).

What is the place of Qweak in the larger landscape of precision experiments? One can illustrate it by considering a simple example where heavy new physics modifies only the vector couplings of the Z boson to up and down quarks. The best existing constraints on such a scenario are displayed in this plot:
From the size of the rotten egg region you see that the Z boson couplings to light quarks are currently known with a per-mille accuracy. Somewhat surprisingly, the LEP collider, which back in the 1990s produced tens of millions of Z boson to precisely study their couplings, is not at all the leader in this field. In fact, better constraints come from precision measurements at very low energies: pion, kaon, and neutron decays,  parity-violating transitions in cesium atoms,  and the latest Qweak results which make a difference too. The importance of Qweak is even more pronounced in more complex scenarios where the parameter space is multi-dimensional.

Qweak is certainly not the last salvo on the low-energy frontier. Similar but more precise experiments are being prepared as we read (I wish the follow up were called SuperQweak, or SQweak in short). Who knows, maybe quarks are made of more fundamental building blocks at the scale of ~100 TeV,  and we'll first find it out thanks to parity violation at very low energies. 


Mitchell said...

"numerical accidents making the Z boson effectively protophobic"

I'm excited, I just love low-energy numerical accidents and this is new to me. (For another numerical accident connecting Z boson with the strong force, see here.) The accident here is that 1 - 4 sin^2 theta_w is small.

Ervin Goldfain said...


Plugging the new physics scale M* = 100 TeV in the formula for (delta) QW and assuming strong interaction (g* ~ 4 x pi), yields a deviation of (delta) QW = 0.00394. But this value has the same magnitude as the current experimental uncertainty of the proton weak charge, placed at (delta) QW = 0.0045.

Is there sufficient resolution here to make claims about BSM physics at 100 TeV?

Mad Hatter said...

I meant the next generation experiments should be sensitive to that scale. The P2 experiment in Mainz is expected to reduce the error on QW by a factor of five.

Psychedelic fathomer said...

I am really glad to see you are back. Blogs like yours with informative, lucid and witty posts are sorely needed. Just read your "where were we?" post and I could not agree more. To me the 3rd avenue is the most promising. But also the hardest and riskiest to pursue for any individual in his prime years. I'd love it if someone broke through. Maybe I'd even read about it here at first ;)