|Sketch of new experiment.|
Fig 1 from arXiv:1502.03888
Three months ago, I told you about a paper that suggested a new way to look for certain types of dark matter fields, called “chameleon fields”. Chameleon fields can explain the observed accelerated expansion of the universe without the necessity to introduce a cosmological constant. Their defining feature is a “screening mechanism” that suppresses the field in the vicinity of matter. The Chameleon fields become noticeable between galaxies, where the average energy density is very thin, but the field is tiny and unmeasurable nearby massive objects, such as the Earth.Or so we thought, until it was pointed out by Burrage, Copeland and Hinds that the fields should be observable in vacuum chambers, when measured not with massive probes but with light ones, such as for example single atoms. The idea is that the Chameleon field inside a vacuum chamber would not be suppressed, or not very much suppressed, and then atoms in the chamber are subject to a modified gravitational field, that is the usual gravitational field, plus the extra force from the Chameleon.
You might not believe it, but half a year after they proposed the experiment, it’s been done already, by a group of researchers from Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania
- Atom-interferometry constraints on dark energy
Paul Hamilton, Matt Jaffe, Philipp Haslinger, Quinn Simmons, Holger Müller, Justin Khoury
Here is what they did in the experiment.
They used a vacuum chamber in which there is an atom interferometer for a cloud of about 10 million Cesium atoms. The vacuum chamber also contains a massive sphere. The sphere serves to suppress the field on one arm of the interferometer, so that a phase difference resulting from the Chameleon field should become measurable. The atoms are each brought into superpositions somewhere above the sphere, and split into two wave-packages. They are directed with laser pulses, that make one wave-package go up – away from the sphere – and down again, and the other wave-package go down – towards the sphere – and up again. Then the phase-shift between the different wave-packages is measured. This phase-shift contains information about the gravitational field on each path.
They also make a measurement in which the sphere is moved aside entirely, so as to figure out what is the offset from the gravitational field of the Earth alone, which allows them to extract the (potential) influence of the Chameleon field by itself.
Their data doesn’t contain any evidence for an usual fifth force, so they can exclude the presence of the Chameleon field to some precision which derives from their data. Thanks to using atoms instead of more massive probes, their experiment is the first of which the precision is high enough to rule out part of the parameter space in which a dark energy field could have been found. The models for Chameleon fields have a second parameter, and part of this space isn’t excluded yet. However, if the experiment can be improved by some orders of magnitude, it might be possible to rule it out completely. This would mean then that we could discard of these models entirely.
It is always hard to explain how one can get excited about null results, but see: ruling out certain models frees up mental space for other ideas. Of course the people who have worked on it won’t be happy, but such is science. (Though Justin Khoury, who is originator of the idea, co-authored the paper and so seems content contributing to its demise.) The Chaemeleon isn’t quite dead yet, but I’m happy to report it’s on the way to the nirvana of deceased dark energy models.