Particle physicists are an inquisitive bunch. Their goal is a working, complete model of the particles and forces that make up the Universe, and they pursue that goal with a vigour matched by few other professions.
The Standard Model of Physics is the result of their efforts, and for 25 years or so, it has guided our thinking and understanding of particle physics. The best tool we have for studying physics further is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), near Geneva, Switzerland. And some recent, intriguing results from the LHC points to the existence of a newly discovered particle.
The LHC has four separate detectors. Two of them are “general purpose” detectors, called ATLAS and CMS. Last year, separate experiments in both the ATLAS and CMS detectors produced what is best called a “bump” in their data. Initially, the two teams conducting the experiments were puzzled by the data. But when they compared them, they found that the bumps in their data were the same in both experiments, and they hinted at what could be a new type of particle, never before detected.
The two experiments involved smashing protons into each other at near-relativistic speeds. The collisions produced more high-energy photons than theory predicts. Not a lot more, but physics is a detailed endeavour, so even a slight increase in the amount of photons produced is a big deal. In physics, everything happens for a reason.
To be more specific, ATLAS and CMS recorded increased activity at an energy level around 750 giga electron-volts (GeV). What that means, for all you non-particle physicists, is that the new particle decays into two photons at the point of the proton-proton collision. If the new particle exists, that is.
A new particle would be a huge discovery. The Standard Model has describe all the particles present in nature pretty well. It even predicted the existence of one type of particle, the Higgs Boson, long before the LHC actually verified its existence. The discovery of a new type of particle would be very exciting news indeed, and could break the Standard Model.
Since this data from the experiments at the LHC was released last year, the physics world has been buzzing. Over 100 papers have been written to try to explain what the results might mean. But some caution is required.
The first thing scientists do when faced with results like this is to try to quantify the likelihood that it could be chance. If only one experiment had this bump in its data, then the likelihood that it was just a chance occurrence is pretty high. There are many reasons why an experiment can have a result like this, which is why repeatability is such a big deal in science. But when two independent, separate, experiments have the same result, people’s ears perk up.
A few months have passed since the experiments were run, and in that time, the experimenters have tried to determine exactly what the likelihood is of these result occurring by chance. After working with the data, a funny thing has happened. The significance of the extra photons detected by CMS has risen, while the significance of the extra photons detected by ATLAS has fallen. This has definitely left physicists scratching their heads.
Also in that time, about four main explanations for the experimental results have percolated to the surface. One states that the new particle, if it exists, is made up of smaller particles, similar to how a proton is made up of quarks. These smaller particles could be held together by an unknown force. Some theoretical physicists think this is the best fit with the data.
Another possibility is that the new particle is a heavier version of the Higgs Boson. About 12 times heavier. Or it could be that the Higgs Boson itself is made up of smaller particles, and that’s what the experiment detected.
Or, it could be the much-hypothesized graviton, the theoretical particle that carries the gravitational force. The four fundamental forces in the Universe are electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and gravity. So far, we have discovered the particles that transmit all of those forces, except for gravity. If their was a new particle detected, and if it proved to be the graviton, that would be enormous, earth-shattering news. At least for those who are passionate about understanding nature.
That’s a lot of “ifs” though.
There are a lot of holes in our knowledge of the Universe, and physicists are eager to fill those gaps. The discovery of a new particle might very well answer some basic questions about dark matter, dark energy, or even gravity itself. But there’s a lot more experimentation to be done before the existence of a new particle can be announced.