A Hint of New Physics Observed in Polarized Radiation From the Early Universe

As the light of the cosmic microwave background emitted 13.8 billion years ago (left image) travels through the Universe until observed on Earth (right image), the direction in which the electromagnetic wave oscillates (orange line) is rotated by an angle β. The rotation could be caused by dark matter or dark energy interacting with the light of the cosmic microwave background, which changes the patterns of polarization (black lines inside the images). The red and blue regions in the images show hot and cold regions of the cosmic microwave background, respectively.
Credit: Y. Minami / KEK

Using Planck data from the cosmic microwave background radiation, an international team of researchers has observed a hint of new physics. The team developed a new method to measure the polarization angle of the ancient light by calibrating it with dust emission from our own Milky Way. While the signal is not detected with enough precision to draw definite conclusions, it may suggest that dark matter or dark energy causes a violation of the so-called “parity symmetry.”

The laws of physics governing the Universe are thought not to change when flipped around in a mirror. For example, electromagnetism works the same regardless of whether you are in the original system, or in a mirrored system in which all spatial coordinates have been flipped. If this symmetry, called “parity,” is violated, it may hold the key to understanding the elusive nature of dark matter and dark energy, which occupy 25 and 70 percent of the energy budget of the Universe today, respectively. While both dark, these two components have opposite effects on the evolution of the Universe: dark matter attracts, while dark energy causes the Universe to expand ever faster.

A new study, including researchers from the Institute of Particle and Nuclear Studies (IPNS) at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU) of the University of Tokyo, and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA), reports on a tantalizing hint of new physics—with 99.2 percent confidence level — which violates parity symmetry. Their findings were published in the journal Physical Review Letters on November 23, 2020; the paper was selected as the “Editors’ Suggestion,” judged by editors of the journal to be important, interesting, and well written.

The hint to a violation of parity symmetry was found in the cosmic microwave background radiation, the remnant light of the Big Bang. The key is the polarized light of the cosmic microwave background. Light is a propagating electromagnetic wave. When it consists of waves oscillating in a preferred direction, physicists call it “polarized”. The polarization arises when the light is scattered. Sunlight, for instance, consists of waves with all possible oscillating directions; thus, it is not polarized. The light of a rainbow, meanwhile, is polarized because the sunlight is scattered by water droplets in the atmosphere. Similarly, the light of the cosmic microwave background initially became polarized when scattered by electrons 400,000 years after the Big Bang. As this light traveled through the Universe for 13.8 billion years, the interaction of the cosmic microwave background with dark matter or dark energy could cause the plane of polarization to rotate by an angle β (Figure).

“If dark matter or dark energy interact with the light of the cosmic microwave background in a way that violates parity symmetry, we can find its signature in the polarization data,” points out Yuto Minami, a postdoctoral fellow at IPNS, KEK.

To measure the rotation angle β, the scientists needed polarization-sensitive detectors, such as those onboard the Planck satellite of the European Space Agency (ESA). And they needed to know how the polarization-sensitive detectors are oriented relative to the sky. If this information was not known with sufficient precision, the measured polarization plane would appear to be rotated artificially, creating a false signal. In the past, uncertainties over the artificial rotation introduced by the detectors themselves limited the measurement accuracy of the cosmic polarization angle β.

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