What’s the Big Deal About the Pentaquark?

“Three quarks for Muster Mark!,” wrote James Joyce in his labyrinthine fable, Finnegan’s Wake. By now, you may have heard this quote – the short, nonsensical sentence that eventually gave the name “quark” to the Universe’s (as-yet-unsurpassed) most fundamental building blocks. Today’s physicists believe that they understand the basics of how quarks combine; three join up to form baryons (everyday particles like the proton and neutron), while two – a quark and an antiquark – stick together to form more exotic, less stable varieties called mesons. Rare four-quark partnerships are called tetraquarks. And five quarks bound in a delicate dance? Naturally, that would be a pentaquark. And the pentaquark, until recently a mere figment of physics lore, has now been detected at the LHC!

So what’s the big deal? Far from just being a fun word to say five-times-fast, the pentaquark may unlock vital new information about the strong nuclear force. These revelations could ultimately change the way we think about our superbly dense friend, the neutron star – and, indeed, the nature of familiar matter itself.

Physicists know of six types of quarks, which are ordered by weight. The lightest of the six are the up and down quarks, which make up the most familiar everyday baryons (two ups and a down in the proton, and two downs and an up in the neutron). The next heaviest are the charm and strange quarks, followed by the top and bottom quarks. And why stop there? In addition, each of the six quarks has a corresponding anti-particle, or antiquark.

Six types of quark, arranged from left to right by way of their mass, depicted along with the other elementary particles of the Standard Model. The Higgs boson was added to the right side of the menagerie in 2012. (Image Credit: Fermilab)

An important attribute of both quarks and their anti-particle counterparts is something called “color.” Of course, quarks do not have color in the same way that you might call an apple “red” or the ocean “blue”; rather, this property is a metaphorical way of communicating one of the essential laws of subatomic physics – that quark-containing particles (called hadrons) always carry a neutral color charge.

For instance, the three components of a proton must include one red quark, one green quark, and one blue quark. These three “colors” add up to a neutral particle in the same way that red, green, and blue light combine to create a white glow. Similar laws are in place for the quark and antiquark that make up a meson: their respective colors must be exactly opposite. A red quark will only combine with an anti-red (or cyan) antiquark, and so on.

The pentaquark, too, must have a neutral color charge. Imagine a proton and a meson (specifically, a type called a J/psi meson) bound together – a red, a blue, and a green quark in one corner, and a color-neutral quark-antiquark pair in the other – for a grand total of four quarks and one antiquark, all colors of which neatly cancel each other out.

Physicists are not sure whether the pentaquark is created by this type of segregated arrangement or whether all five quarks are bound together directly; either way, like all hadrons, the pentaquark is kept in check by that titan of fundamental dynamics, the strong nuclear force.

The strong nuclear force, as its name implies, is the unspeakably robust force that glues together the components of every atomic nucleus: protons and neutrons and, more crucially, their own constituent quarks. The strong force is so tenacious that “free quarks” have never been observed; they are all confined far too tightly within their parent baryons.

But there is one place in the Universe where quarks may exist in and of themselves, in a kind of meta-nuclear state: in an extraordinarily dense type of neutron star. In a typical neutron star, the gravitational pressure is so tremendous that protons and electrons cease to be. Their energies and charges melt together, leaving nothing but a snug mass of neutrons.

Physicists have conjectured that, at extreme densities, in the most compact of stars, adjacent neutrons within the core may even themselves disintegrate into a jumble of constituent parts.

The neutron star… would become a quark star.

The difference between a neutron star and a quark star (Chandra)
The difference between a neutron star and a quark star. (Image Credit: Chandra)

Scientists believe that understanding the physics of the pentaquark may shed light on the way the strong nuclear force operates under such extreme conditions – not only in such overly dense neutron stars, but perhaps even in the first fractions of a second following the Big Bang. Further analysis should also help physicists refine their understanding of the ways that quarks can and cannot combine.

The data that gave rise to this discovery – a whopping 9-sigma result! – came out of the LHC’s first run (2010-2013). With the supercollider now operating at double its original energy capacity, physicists should have no problem unraveling the mysteries of the pentaquark even further.

A preprint of the pentaquark discovery, which has been submitted to the journal Physical Review Letters, can be found here.

Weekly Space Hangout – June 26, 2015: Paul Sutter, CCAPP Visiting Fellow

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: This week we welcome Paul Sutter, the CCAPP Visiting Fellow who works on the cosmic microwave background and large-scale structure.

Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
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Weekly Space Hangout – April 10, 2015: Orbital Docking with Dr. Stephen Granade

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Dr. Stephen Granade (@sargent)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Charles Black (@charlesblack / sen.com/charles-black)
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Book Review and Giveaway: “Most Wanted Particle” by Jon Butterworth

Most Wanted Particle is an insider’s tale of the hunt for the Higgs boson, the field which imparts mass to, well, nearly everything. Written by Jon Butterworth —- a physicist working with the ATLAS team at the Large Hadron Collider —- the book documents the construction of the Large Hadron Collider, the catastrophe after it was first turned on, and the global excitement as evidence for the Higgs boson grew incontrovertible.

Most Wanted Particle has already received glowing praise from the likes of Brian Cox and even Peter Higgs —- for whom the boson is named -— and I’m sure that several physicists reading this site already have the book on their ‘to read’ list. But what about the rest of us? As a biology PhD whose last physics class was about 15 years ago, I decided to see if the book was accessible enough for your average science geek.

Find out how you can win a copy of this book, below.

First and only warning: the book discusses some very fundamental physics, and if you’re afraid to learn about topics like quarks, gluons, and hadronic jets, then this book will be tough going for you (all three of these are introduced on page 22, for instance). This complexity should be largely expected given the subject matter of the book; the alternative would be like a WW2 book that didn’t mention Normandy. So if learning some jargon scares you, you’d best stick to reading the news headlines from CERN.

With that caveat out of the way, Butterworth is a stellar writer and teacher, and he employs a number of tricks to make Most Wanted Particle extremely readable. First of all, equations are largely absent—they are described rather than displayed. (More kudos are due for making it over halfway through the book before the first Feynman diagram appears). Second is Butterworth’s impressive facility with analogy: often, even if you are struggling with the specifics of a concept, you will be able to grasp the broad brush strokes, and that’s enough to follow along with the tale.

Finally, there is the journalistic style. The book is written as a passionate first-person account, and the main narrative is pleasingly interrupted by diversions. It’s not uncommon to have a dense description of, say, super symmetry, broken up by a blog-like chapter discussing an international trip to a conference. (Other topics include meeting etiquette and ‘taking things offline’; what makes a good acronym; and a particularly memorable drunken night for the author and friends in Hamburg.)

Do you have friends who are scientists? If so, you will feel at home reading this book, and it took me a while to understand why. It’s because the general impression that I get from this book is very similar to taking a scientist friend to the pub, and having them describe their work to you over a beer. Sometimes you’ll get a little lost in the more thorny parts of the science; often you’ll get carried off by a tangent; but overall you’ll just enjoy a rollicking good tale, told by an intelligent storyteller.

This book comes highly recommended!

Most Wanted Particle is published by The Experiment Publishing. Find out more about the book here.

Thanks to The Experiment, Universe Today has one copy of this book to give away to our readers. The publisher has specified that for this contest, winners need to be from the US or Canada.

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, April 13, 2015. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing. If you’ve entered our giveaways before you should also receive an email with a link on how to enter.

Two New Subatomic Particles Found

Particle Collider

With its first runs of colliding protons in 2008-2013, the Large Hadron Collider has now been providing a stream of experimental data that scientists rely on to test predictions arising out of particle and high-energy physics. In fact, today CERN made public the first data produced by LHC experiments. And with each passing day, new information is released that is helping to shed light on some of the deeper mysteries of the universe.

This week, for example, CERN announced the discovery two new subatomic particles that are part of the baryon family. The particles, known as the Xi_b’ and Xi_b*, were discovered thanks to the efforts of the LHCb experiment – an international collaboration involving roughly 750 scientists from around the world.

The existence of these particles was predicted by the quark model, but had never been seen before. What’s more, their discovery could help scientists to further confirm the Standard Model of particle physics, which is considered virtually unassailable now thanks to the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

Like the well-known protons that the LHC accelerates, the new particles are baryons made from three quarks bound together by the strong force. The types of quarks are different, though: the new X_ib particles both contain one beauty (b), one strange (s), and one down (d) quark. Thanks to the heavyweight b quarks, they are more than six times as massive as the proton.

Cross-section of the Large Hadron Collider where its detectors are placed and collisions occur. LHC is as much as 175 meters (574 ft) below ground on the Frence-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland. The accelerator ring is 27 km (17 miles) in circumference. (Photo Credit: CERN)
Cross-section of the Large Hadron Collider where its detectors are placed and collisions occur. Credit: CERN

However, their mass also depends on how they are configured. Each of the quarks has an attribute called “spin”; and in the Xi_b’ state, the spins of the two lighter quarks point in the opposite direction to the b quark, whereas in the Xi_b* state they are aligned. This difference makes the Xi_b* a little heavier.

“Nature was kind and gave us two particles for the price of one,” said Matthew Charles of the CNRS’s LPNHE laboratory at Paris VI University. “The Xi_b’ is very close in mass to the sum of its decay products: if it had been just a little lighter, we wouldn’t have seen it at all using the decay signature that we were looking for.”

“This is a very exciting result,” said Steven Blusk from Syracuse University in New York. “Thanks to LHCb’s excellent hadron identification, which is unique among the LHC experiments, we were able to separate a very clean and strong signal from the background,” “It demonstrates once again the sensitivity and how precise the LHCb detector is.”

Blusk and Charles jointly analyzed the data that led to this discovery. The existence of the two new baryons had been predicted in 2009 by Canadian particle physicists Randy Lewis of York University and Richard Woloshyn of the TRIUMF, Canada’s national particle physics lab in Vancouver.

The bare masses of all 6 flavors of quarks, proton and electron, shown in proportional volume. Credit: Wikipedia/Incnis Mrsi
The bare masses of all 6 flavors of quarks, proton and electron, shown in proportional volume. Credit: Wikipedia/Incnis Mrsi

As well as the masses of these particles, the research team studied their relative production rates, their widths – a measure of how unstable they are – and other details of their decays. The results match up with predictions based on the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD).

QCD is part of the Standard Model of particle physics, the theory that describes the fundamental particles of matter, how they interact, and the forces between them. Testing QCD at high precision is a key to refining our understanding of quark dynamics, models of which are tremendously difficult to calculate.

“If we want to find new physics beyond the Standard Model, we need first to have a sharp picture,” said LHCb’s physics coordinator Patrick Koppenburg from Nikhef Institute in Amsterdam. “Such high precision studies will help us to differentiate between Standard Model effects and anything new or unexpected in the future.”

The measurements were made with the data taken at the LHC during 2011-2012. The LHC is currently being prepared – after its first long shutdown – to operate at higher energies and with more intense beams. It is scheduled to restart by spring 2015.

The research was published online yesterday on the physics preprint server arXiv and have been submitted to the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

Further Reading: CERN, LHCb

Weekly Space Hangout – Nov. 14, 2014: Holy Rosetta! We Landed on a Comet!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)

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First Precise Measurement of Antihydrogen

The best science — the questions that capture and compel any human being — is enshrouded in mystery. Here’s an example: scientists expect that matter and antimatter were created in equal quantities shortly after the Big Bang. If this had been the case, the two types of particles would have annihilated each other, leaving a Universe permeated by energy.

As our existence attests, that did not happen. In fact, nature seems to have a one-part in 10 billion preference for matter over antimatter. It’s one of the greatest mysteries in modern physics.

But the Large Hadron Collider is working hard, literally pushing matter to the limit, to solve this captivating mystery. This week, CERN created a beam of antihydrogen atoms, allowing scientists to take precise measurements of this elusive antimatter for the first time.

Antiparticles are identical to matter particles except for the sign of their electric charge. So while hydrogen consists of a positively charged proton orbited by a negatively charged electron, antihydrogen consists of a negatively charged antiproton orbited by a positively charged anti-electron, or a positron

While primordial antimatter has never been observed in the Universe, it’s possible to create antihydrogen in a particle accelerator by mixing positrons and low energy antiprotons.

In 2010, the ALPHA team captured and held atoms of antihydrogen for the first time. Now the team has successfully created a beam of antihydrogen particles. In a paper published this week in Nature Communications, the ALPHA team reports the detection of 80 antihydrogen atoms 2.7 meters downstream from their production.

“This is the first time we have been able to study antihydrogen with some precision,” said ALPHA spokesperson Jeffrey Hangst in a press release. “We are optimistic that ALPHA’s trapping technique will yield many such insights in the future.”

One of the key challenges is keeping antihydrogen away from ordinary matter, so that the two don’t annihilate each other. To do so, most experiments use magnetic fields to trap antihydrogen atoms long enough to study them.

However, the strong magnetic fields degrade the spectroscopic properties of the antihydrogen atoms, so the ALPHA team had to develop an innovative set-up to transfer antihydrogen atoms to a region where they could be studied, far from the strong magnetic field.

To measure the charge of antihydrogen, the ALPHA team studied the trajectories of antihydrogen atoms released from the trap in the presence of an electric field. If the antihydrogen atoms had an electric charge, the field would deflect them, whereas neutral atoms would be undeflected.

The result, based on 386 recorded events, gives a value of the antihydrogen electric charge at -1.3 x 10-8. In other words, its charge is compatible with zero to eight decimal places. Although this result comes as no surprise, since hydrogen atoms are electrically neutral, it is the first time that the charge of an antiatom has been measured to such high precision.

In the future, any detectable difference between matter and antimatter could help solve one of the greatest mysteries in modern physics, opening up a window into a new realm of science.

The paper has been published in Nature Communications.

Higgs Boson Physicists Receive 2013 Nobel Prize

That was fast! Just one year after a Higgs Boson-like particle was found at the Large Hadron Collider, the two physicists who first proposed its existence have received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. François Englert (of the former Free University of Brussels in Belgium) and Peter W. Higgs (at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom) received the prize officially this morning (Oct. 8.)

The Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) mechanism was first described in two independent papers by these physicists in 1964, and is believed to be responsible for the amount of matter a particle contains. Higgs himself said this mechanism would be visible in a massive boson (or subatomic particle), later called the Higgs boson. Check out more information on what the particle means at this past Universe Today article by editor Nancy Atikinson.

“The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed. According to the Standard Model, everything, from flowers and people to stars and planets, consists of just a few building blocks: matter particles. These particles are governed by forces mediated by force particles that make sure everything works as it should,”  the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

The Standard Model describes the interactions of fundamental particles. The W boson, the carrier of the electroweak force, has a mass that is fundamentally relevant for many predictions, from the energy emitted by our sun to the mass of the elusive Higgs boson. Credit: Fermilab
The Standard Model describes the interactions of fundamental particles. The W boson, the carrier of the electroweak force, has a mass that is fundamentally relevant for many predictions, from the energy emitted by our sun to the mass of the elusive Higgs boson. Credit: Fermilab

“The entire Standard Model also rests on the existence of a special kind of particle: the Higgs particle. This particle originates from an invisible field that fills up all space. Even when the universe seems empty this field is there. Without it, we would not exist, because it is from contact with the field that particles acquire mass. The theory proposed by Englert and Higgs describes this process.”

A very thrilled CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) noted that the Standard Model theory has been “remarkably successful”, and passed several key tests before the particle was unveiled last year in ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider.

Dark matter in the Bullet Cluster.  Otherwise invisible to telescopic views, the dark matter was mapped by observations of gravitational lensing of background galaxies. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/ M.Markevitch et al.; Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/ D.Clowe et al. Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.;
Dark matter in the Bullet Cluster. Otherwise invisible to telescopic views, the dark matter was mapped by observations of gravitational lensing of background galaxies. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/ M.Markevitch et al.; Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/ D.Clowe et al. Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.;

“The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year, which validates the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world,” stated CERN director General Rolf Heuer.

CERN added that the discovery last year was exciting, but the Higgs boson only explains only the matter that we can see. CERN is among the organizations on the hunt for dark matter and energy, forms that can’t be sensed with conventional observatories but can be seen through their effects — such as gravitational lensing.

Sources: CERN, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

An “Elemental” Explanation of Dark Matter

Atoms, string theory, dark matter, dark energy… there’s an awful lot about the Universe that might make sense on paper (to physicists, anyway) but is extremely difficult to detect and measure, at least with the technology available today. But at the core of science is observation, and what’s been observed of the Universe so far strongly indicates an overwhelming amount of… stuff… that cannot be observed. But just because it can’t be seen doesn’t mean it’s not there; on the contrary, it’s what we can’t see that actually makes up the majority of the Universe.

If this doesn’t make sense, that’s okay — they’re all pretty complex concepts. So in order to help non-scientists (which, like dark energy, most of the population is comprised of) get a better grasp as to what all this “dark” stuff is about, CERN scientist and spokesperson James Gillies has teamed up with TED-Ed animators to visually explain some of the Universe’s darkest secrets. Check it out above (and see more space science lessons from TED-Ed here.)

Because everything’s easier to understand with animation!

Lesson by James Gillies, animation by TED-Ed.