Dead-cone effect exposed by ALICE

1 July 2022
A charm quark in a parton shower

More than 30 years after it was predicted, a phenomenon in quantum chromodynamics (QCD) called the dead-cone effect has been directly observed by the ALICE collaboration. The result, reported in Nature on 18 May, not only confirms a fundamental feature of the theory of the strong force, but enables a direct experimental observation of the non-zero mass of the charm quark in the partonic phase.

In QCD, the dead-cone effect predicts a suppression of gluon bremsstrahlung from a quark within a cone centred on the quark’s flight direction. This cone has an angular size mq/E, where mq is the mass of the quark and E is its energy. The effect arises due to the conservation of angular momentum during the gluon emission and is significant for low-energy heavy-flavour quarks. 

The dead cone has been indirectly observed at particle colliders. A direct observation from the parton shower’s radiation pattern has remained challenging, however, because it relies on the determination of the emission angle of the gluon, as well as the emitting heavy-flavour quark’s energy, at each emission vertex in the parton shower (see “Showering” figure). This requires a dynamic reconstruction of the cascading quarks and gluons in the shower from experimentally accessible hadrons, which had not been possible until now. In addition, the dead-cone region can be obscured and filled by other sources such as the decay products of heavy-flavour hadrons, which must be removed during the measurement.

To observe the dead-cone effect directly, ALICE used jets tagged with a reconstructed D0-meson in a 25 nb–1 sample of pp collisions at a centre-of-mass-energy of 13 TeV collected between 2016 and 2018. The D0-mesons were reconstructed with transverse momenta between 2 and 36 GeV/c through their decay into a kaon and pion pair. Jet-finding was then performed on the events with the “anti-kT” algorithm, and jets with the reconstructed D0-meson amongst their constituents were tagged. The team used recursive jet-clustering techniques to reconstruct the gluon emissions from the radiating charm quark by following the branch containing the D0-meson at each de-clustering step, which is equivalent to following the emitting charm quark through the shower. A similar procedure was carried out on a flavour-untagged sample of jets, which contain primarily gluon and light-quark emissions and form a baseline where the dead-cone effect is absent.

Comparisons between the gluon emissions from charm quarks and from light quarks and gluons directly reveal the dead-cone effect through a suppression of gluon emissions from the charm quark at small angles, compared to the emissions from light quarks and gluons. Since QCD predicts a mass-dependence of the dead cones, the result also directly exposes the mass of the charm quark, which is otherwise inaccessible due to confinement. ALICE’s successful technique to directly observe a parton shower’s dead cone may therefore offer a way to measure quark masses.

The upgraded ALICE detector in LHC Run 3 will enable an extension of the measurement to jets tagged with a B+ meson. This will allow the reconstruction of gluon emissions from beauty quarks which, due to their larger mass, are expected to have a larger dead cone than charm quarks. Comparisons between the angular distribution of gluon emissions from beauty quarks and those from charm quarks will isolate mass-dependent effects in the shower and remove the contribution from effects pertaining to the differences between quark and gluon fragmentation, bringing deeper insights into the intriguing workings of the strong force.

Further reading

ALICE Collaboration 2022 Nature 605 440.

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