Monday, 9 April 2018

Per kaons ad astra

NA62 is a precision experiment at CERN. From their name you wouldn't suspect that they're doing anything noteworthy: the collaboration was running in the contest for the most unimaginative name, only narrowly losing to CMS...  NA62 employs an intense beam of charged kaons to search for the very rare decay K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈. The Standard Model predicts the branching fraction BR(K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈) = 8.4x10^-11 with a small, 10% theoretical uncertainty (precious stuff in the flavor business). The previous measurement by the BNL-E949 experiment reported BR(K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈) = (1.7 ± 1.1)x10^-10, consistent with the Standard Model, but still  leaving room for large deviations.  NA62 is expected to pinpoint the decay and measure the branching fraction with a 10% accuracy, thus severely constraining new physics contributions. The wires, pipes, and gory details of the analysis  were nicely summarized by Tommaso. Let me jump directly to explaining what is it good for from the theory point of view.

To this end it is useful to adopt the effective theory perspective. At a more fundamental level, the decay occurs due to the strange quark inside the kaon undergoing the transformation  sbardbar 𝜈 𝜈bar. In the Standard Model, the amplitude for that process is dominated by one-loop diagrams with W/Z bosons and heavy quarks. But kaons live at low energies and do not really see the fine details of the loop amplitude. Instead, they effectively see the 4-fermion contact interaction:
The mass scale suppressing this interaction is quite large, more than 1000 times larger than the W boson mass, which is due to the loop factor and small CKM matrix elements entering the amplitude. The strong suppression is the reason why the K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈  decay is so rare in the first place. The corollary is that even a small new physics effect inducing that effective interaction may dramatically change the branching fraction. Even a particle with a mass as large as 1 PeV coupled to the quarks and leptons with order one strength could produce an observable shift of the decay rate.  In this sense, NA62 is a microscope probing physics down to 10^-20 cm  distances, or up to PeV energies, well beyond the reach of the LHC or other colliders in this century. If the new particle is lighter, say order TeV mass, NA62 can be sensitive to a tiny milli-coupling of that particle to quarks and leptons.

So, from a model-independent perspective, the advantages  of studying the K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈  decay are quite clear. A less trivial question is what can the future NA62 measurements teach us about our cherished models of new physics. One interesting application is in the industry of explaining the apparent violation of lepton flavor universality in BK l+ l-, and BD l 𝜈 decays. Those anomalies involve the 3rd generation bottom quark, thus a priori they do not need to have anything to do with kaon decays. However, many of the existing models introduce flavor symmetries controlling the couplings of the new particles to matter (instead of just ad-hoc interactions to address the anomalies). The flavor symmetries may then relate the couplings of different quark generations, and thus predict  correlations between new physics contributions to B meson and to kaon decays. One nice example is illustrated in this plot:

The observable RD(*) parametrizes the preference for BD 𝜏 𝜈 over similar decays with electrons and muon, and its measurement by the BaBar collaboration deviates from the Standard Model prediction by roughly 3 sigma. The plot shows that, in a model based on U(2)xU(2) flavor symmetry, a significant contribution to RD(*) generically implies a large enhancement of BR(K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈), unless the model parameters are tuned to avoid that.  The anomalies in the BK(*) 𝜇 𝜇 decays can also be correlated with large effects in K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈, see here for an example. Finally, in the presence of new light invisible particles, such as axions, the NA62 observations can be polluted by exotic decay channels, such as e.g.  K+ → axion 𝝿+.

The  K+ → 𝝿+ 𝜈 𝜈 decay is by no means the magic bullet that will inevitably break the Standard Model.  It should be seen as one piece of a larger puzzle that may or may not provide crucial hints about new physics. For the moment, NA62 has analyzed only a small batch of data collected in 2016, and their error bars are still larger than those of BNL-E949. That should change soon when the 2017  dataset is analyzed. More data will be acquired this year, with 20 signal events expected  before the long LHC shutdown. Simultaneously, another experiment called KOTO studies an even more rare process where neutral kaons undergo the CP-violating decay KL → 𝝿0 𝜈 𝜈,  which probes the imaginary part of the effective operator written above. As I wrote recently, my feeling is that low-energy precision experiments are currently our best hope for a better understanding of fundamental interactions, and I'm glad to see a good pace of progress on this front.


andrew said...

There must be dozens of measurements like the kaon decay in this post that are highly sensitive to the overall particle content of the Standard Model that all agree to within two sigma of the SM prediction.

Surely there is some way of mathematically aggregating all of those confirmations to create a much more tight global set of constraints than we have from direct searches. Shouldn't there be? Has this been done?

Mad Hatter said...

Yes, this kind of global effective theory analyses are being done. For example, for kaons decays (though not including K->pi nu nu) there is a compilation in .

Anonymous said...

Ah, the precious rare decay, par excellence...

It satisfies the well known maxim that the difficulty of performing the experiment is inversely proportional to the difficulty calculating the result.

In fact, this decay and it's sister KL -> pi0 nu nubar are at the asymptotic limit of the above maxim...