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Atomic-Physics Searches for Dark Energy

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Dark energy, the driver of the accelerated expansion of the universe, remains a conundrum. New physics may well be needed to explain it; from Lorentz invariance, this new physics should contain scalar fields, which should be straightforward to detect — so where are they? Physicists have now realized that scalar fields can hide from detection by three distinct screening mechanisms, which respectively rely on nonlinear features in the scalar’s kinetic energy, potential energy, or coupling to normal matter. These fields go by names such as galileons, chameleons, f(R) gravity, or symmetrons and range from theoretically well-motivated and natural to speculative. We will present new techniques to detect these particles, relying on interferometry with cold atoms in vacuum. The low density of such atoms compared to bulk matter avoids triggering some screening mechanisms, while the high sensitivity of the interferometer overcomes other screening mechanisms by brute force. We will show limits ruling out substantial regions of parameter space for chameleons and symmetrons [Science 349, 849 (2015)] and argue that an interferometer with 10,000 fold improved sensitivity will be able to search the gamut of screened scalar fields. A positive identification would revolutionize particle physics and cosmology, but even a null result would have important implications for our understanding of the dark sector.