Fermilab Today Friday, Aug. 15, 2014
Physics in a Nutshell

What is a WIMP?

Physicists — especially particle physicists — have a habit of choosing colorful names for their various topics of studies. MACHOs and WIMPs are two terms commonly used in dark matter studies. Today's column tells us what a WIMP is.

If you want to understand dark matter, you need to understand terms such as MACHO and WIMP. It's enough to recall one of those 1970s comic book advertisements for Charles Atlas' body building program (well, for those of us of a certain age anyway).

To understand the term WIMP, we need to go back to the idea of dark matter and why we think it exists. The easiest-to-understand evidence for the existence of dark matter involves spinning galaxies. As early as the 1930s, scientists combined measurements of the rotational speed of galaxies with Newton's theory of gravity and determined that something was awry. The galaxies were spinning so fast that they could not be held together by the gravitational force of the observed matter and should have torn themselves apart. After decades of studies, scientists have determined that the most probable explanation is that there exists another form of matter that we now call dark matter. It is generally imagined that dark matter is essentially a diffuse gas of massive subatomic particles.

Astronomical evidence has allowed us to determine a fairly specific list of properties for dark matter, if it exists. Because this matter neither emits nor absorbs light, it neither is charged nor contains charge within it. This is why we call it dark. It is also stable. We know this because galaxies persist for billions of years. It does not interact via the strong force, as we see no evidence of cosmic rays (made of protons) interacting with it. And because this matter causes galaxies to rotate quickly, we know it both contains mass and participates in the gravitational force.

That last point is crucial. There are four known forces: the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. We know that dark matter does not experience the strong or electromagnetic forces. We know it does experience gravity. We don't know about the weak force.

So let's think about that for a bit. While the weak force is ... well, weak ... gravity is incredibly weak, about a trillion trillion trillion times weaker than the weak force. We have never measured the force due to gravity between two subatomic particles (and we probably never will). So if gravity is the only force that dark matter feels, we will likely never detect it, nor will we ever make it any conceivable particle accelerator.

So how is it that Fermilab (and others) have a vibrant research program looking for dark matter? Is it all wishful thinking?

The answer is, "Of course not." However, it does bring forward an assumption buried inside most dark matter searches. This assumption is that dark matter also experiences the weak nuclear force. Like weakly interacting neutrinos, maybe dark matter will occasionally experience an interaction with ordinary matter and be detected.

So why would scientists postulate that dark matter experiences the weak force? One answer is that if it doesn't, we'll never detect it. But that's not a very good answer. A better answer involves the Higgs boson. Because the Higgs field gives mass to ordinary matter, maybe it also gives mass to dark matter. Further, since the Higgs field was invented to solve a problem with early attempts to unify the weak and electromagnetic forces, maybe the interaction of the Higgs boson with dark matter also ties dark matter to the weak force. And this would be great, as we know from experience that we can detect weak force interactions.

So this leads us to the meaning of the term "WIMP." It is a weakly interacting massive particle — the name is quite literal. It is not necessary that dark matter interact via the weak force, and dark matter may not be a WIMP. If dark matter does not interact via the weak force, we'll probably never detect it directly. In short, the success of all direct dark matter searches depends crucially on dark matter being WIMP-y.

—Don Lincoln

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