Particle physicists go crash, bang… WHOA!

Physicists in Illinois have found something that is at least a little unusual and at most a new force of nature.

Or to put that another way, the blue bump on the right-hand graph above could mean the entire rulebook of physics needs to be rewritten.

The findings came at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (also known as Fermilab), which specializes in high energy physics. It is home to the Tevatron, a particle accelerator second only to the Large Hadron Collider. As with the LHC, staff use it to carry out highly complex and sophisticated experiments that largely boil down to “smashing very small stuff together at high speed to see what happens.”

What’s raising eyebrows now is the results of a set of 10,000 such collisions between beams of protons and antiprotons. At the risk over simplification, in some cases, the results were two jets of light particles clustered around a heavy particle, with the heavy particle being around 144 times heavier than a proton.

While it’s not inconceivable such a result could happen, the physicists say such an outcome occurred around 250 times more than expected. They believe there’s around a 0.25% chance of that number of occurrences being a statistical quirk, which puts the results into the category of significantly interesting rather than a conclusive discovery.

So what’s causing the odd results, if it’s not simply chance? One possible explanation is that the experiment has uncovered a new form of boson. That’s a type of subatomic particle that, to again put things simply, plays a key role in theories about how, well, everything works — theories currently tied together in the “standard model” of physics.

Current theories have it that there are six types of boson, of which four have been observed and two (Higgs boson and Graviton) are still hypothetical. While the nature of the Graviton means it’s effectively impossible to observe, one of the main aims of the Large Hadron Collider work is to observe the Higgs boson.

In the case of the Fermilab discovery, what’s been found doesn’t appear to be the Higgs boson as the heavy particle that’s produced isn’t heavy enough.

Another explanation is that the cause isn’t a new form of particle, but rather a previously unknown force of nature, in the same sense as gravity or electromagnetism.

In the words of astrophysics professor and TV presenter Brian Cox, “And yes, if this stands up to scrutiny and more data (there is not yet enough data for a “discovery”), then it is RIP Standard Model :-)”

Whatever it is, the new discovery is certainly dramatically timed: under current plans the Tevatron is scheduled for decommissioning in September.


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