Friday, March 22, 2013

(Un-)Dead stars and particles

I have already written about some aspects of my research on neutron stars. But what is the problem with them? And what do I want to understand?

First: What are they? If you have a sufficiently massive star, it will not die in a fizzle, like our sun, but it will end violently. It will explode in a supernova. In this process, a lot of its mass gets compressed at its core. If this core is not too heavy, a remainder, a corpse of the star, will remain: A neutron star. If it is too heavy, the remainder will, however, collapse further into a black hole. But this is not the interesting case for me.

Such a neutron star is actually far from dead. It continues its life after its death. But it no longer emits light and warmth, but usually x-rays, neutrinos, and occasionally so-called gravitational waves.

Second: What do I want to understand about them? Neutron stars are enigmatic objects. Their size is about ten kilometers, not more than a larger city. At the same time they have about one to two times the mass of our sun. Thus, they are incredible dense. In fact, they are so dense that there is no place for atoms, but they consist out of the atomic nuclei. That is the case in the outer layers of the neutron star, perhaps the first kilometer or so. Going further inward, the density increases. Then everything gets so tight, that it is no longer possible to separate the nuclei, and they start to overlap. In addition, whatever electrons there still were have already after the first few meters been soaked up to change almost all of the protons into neutrons. In a certain sense, it is just one big atomic nucleus.

And even further in? Well, nobody knows. However, there are many speculations. Do we have there a different kind of matter, so-called strange matter? Such matter is obtained when one starts to replace the up and down quarks in the neutrons with strange quarks. Or does also the neutrons dissolve, and we just have a bunch of quarks? And if yes, how would such quark matter behave? Would it be a fluid, a superconducting metal, or possibly even a crystal?

And that is, where my research starts. What I want to understand is, which form this matter takes. And I am not alone with this. I have just organized a workshop, which partly focused on this subject, and we have worked hard on getting a better understanding, of what goes on in there. That becomes even more interesting as more and more results come in from astronomical observations on neutron stars. They provide us with a lot of indirect evidence on how the matter inside the neutron star's core must behave. But if we understand the strong force correctly, we should be able to calculate this.

The central problem involved in these calculations is the density. The standard approach to particle physics (and to physics in general) is to attempt to simplify the problem, and study its parts in isolation. That is quite well working for many cases, like the Higgs. However, the properties of the neutron star is determined not by the individual neutrons, but in how they interact with each other when there are many of them. Thus, by breaking the system apart you destroy what you want to study. Thus, you have to study the neutrons - or more appropriately the quarks - all together. This enlarges the complexity severely, and it is what stops us in our tracks. Particularly, because it is hard to find efficient ways to calculate anything for a real neutron star.

One way around this is to attempt to indirectly understand it, by studying a simpler system. The alternative is to simplify the system itself. This can be done by making things a bit more fuzzy. This fuzziness is achieved by not tracking each and every quark and what it precisely does. Instead, groups of quarks are tracked, and their activities is averaged. This can be a very simple step. For example, one can treat a neutron instead of being made from three quarks as made from one quark and the rest. And then approximate the rest by a single particle with simple properties. Such an approximation already gives a rough estimate of how things work. Of course, if one wants to get the last bit of precision out of the theory, then one has to return to the original three quarks.

But the problem is complicated, and thus one follows this strategy: Creating less and simpler objects first, an then refine them again. This simpler objects are often called 'effective degrees of freedom', because they effectively mimic many complicated objects. And then we solve the simpler theory describing them, the so-called effective theory. Afterwards, we go back. We refine the effective theory and the simple particles again, introducing the problems bit by bit. And solving them on the way. And that is, where we are currently. Still far away from understanding a neutron stars as a set of elementary particles, as quarks and gluons, but closing in, step by step.