Reasons to Believe

Candidates Compete for Top Billing among Cosmic Particles

In the shadows cast by the brilliant media spotlight on the Higgs boson, a.k.a. “the God particle,” two previously undetected particles have emerged as contenders for that glamorous title. They bear unglamorous names—sterile neutrinos and axions (light inflatons) but carry remarkable significance.

Between them, these two miniscule particles hold potential to solve multiple major mysteries of the universe, including these:

1. Why the first stars form early in cosmic history

2. Why the universe produces slightly more baryons (protons and neutrons) than antibaryons

3. Why certain pulsars manifest rapid kick-out velocities from their origin location

4. Why core-collapse supernovae produce certain abundances of elements with atomic weight greater than 100

5. Why supernova shocks are so highly energetic

6. Why exotic (non-baryonic) dark matter halos are relatively smooth and symmetrical

7. Why supermassive black holes form as early as they do in cosmic history

8. How to account for some warm exotic matter to complement the predominant cold exotic matter that our best big bang origin models require

In the late 1980s theoreticians sparked a search for what they proposed as the singular solution to all these mysteries and perhaps more, namely sterile neutrinos. But for several years that search floundered. Then in a paper published in late December of 2010, physicists Joseph Silk and Dmitry Prokhorov pointed out that astronomers may have been looking for these particles in the wrong way. Rather than looking for the particle’s decay products—a photon and an active neutrino—they would do better to look for the particle’s probable source—decay from very light inflatons. Silk and Prokhorov suggested that decay of certain very light inflatons could produce sterile neutrinos and a detectable x-ray spectral line. Other physicists specified axions as the likely inflatons proposed by Silk and Prokhorov.

Astronomers have long touted axions as the particles most likely comprising the majority of the universe’s exotic matter. If Silk and Prokorov were correct, axions would help us locate the missing sterile neutrinos and also identify the particles that constitute a majority of the universe’s mass.

If sterile neutrinos arise from the decay of very light inflatons, then astronomers can detect them through a series of comparative measurements. Detailed computer simulations compared with observations of dwarf galaxies predict a certain mass for sterile neutrinos (17.8 keV, or kiloelectronvolts), and given this mass, very light inflaton decay into sterile neutrinos would produce a detectable x-ray spectral line near 8.5 keV from the center of the Milky Way. Silk and Prokhorov reanalyzed 2007 measurements of such a spectral line and found that it closely matched what would be expected if inflatons do indeed exist and decay into sterile neutrinos. While this assessment falls short of a “proof-positive” detection, it comes close, and further observations of the geographical extent of the spectral line can confirm the finding. In 2009 four Spanish astronomers showed that if axions exist, they freely escape from white dwarfs (burnt out stars), and their escape would cause a measurable increase in white dwarfs’cooling rate. When the team included axion emissivity in their theoretical calculations, they observed a noticeable gain in  agreement between theory and observations.

Recognizing that axions would also translate into increased pulsation periods for variable white dwarfs, another research team presented values for the change in pulsation-period rate of the white dwarf G117-B15A. These values were compatible with the profile expected if axions exist at the mass level indicated by the white dwarf luminosity function established in the 2009 paper. Observations of other white dwarf variables are under way.

The almost certain existence of sterile neutrinos and axions bolsters confidence in the hot big bang origin model, one that beautifully matches the biblical description of cosmic creation. As astronomers and physicists gain the ability to measure the fine-tuning (for humanity’s benefit) in the abundance and characteristics of sterile neutrinos and axions, I expect the case for supernatural, super-intelligent design will grow even stronger.

(This is an abridged summary of the 4-part TNRTB series “Have the Real ‘God Particles’ Been Found?” See these articles for physical descriptions, definitions, citations, and figures.)

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. Read more about Dr. Hugh Ross.