New particle find turns physics upside-down
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Monday 18 April 2011
It is either one of the most astonishing observations in contemporary science – or an experimental artefact that will be quickly forgotten.
Physicists are buzzing with rumours of the discovery of a new sub-atomic particle – and a novel nuclear force that goes with it. If so, it could upset the universal rules of physics established for more than 30 years.
Earlier this month there was an "intriguing bump" in the data collected from high-speed collisions of sub-atomic particles at the US Fermilab's particle collider near Chicago, which smashes protons and anti-protons together two million times a second.
Scientists thought they could detect energy emissions from what would have to be a new sub-atomic particle, or even a whole "zoo" of particles, existing for a fraction of a second before turning into something more familiar.
The researchers believe the anomaly in their data indicated that the hitherto undiscovered sub-atomic particle has a mass of about 150 times that of a proton, the positively-charged entity within an atom's nucleus. If this proves to be the case, it could spell the end of the idea that matter has a mass because of the existence of another kind of sub-atomic particle called the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" predicted by theoretical physicists but yet to be found.
"If this signal is what we think it is, we could be on the verge of understanding why matter has mass, whereas light doesn't," said Professor Kenneth Lane, a theoretical physicist at Boston University. "We might be seeing the signal for a new kind of nuclear interaction which we have called 'technicolour'. This scenario basically replaces the Higgs boson."
The Standard Model of physics, which explains how sub-atomic particles interact with the four known forces of nature – gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces – predicts that the Higgs boson, if it exists, could also explain why things have a weight to them.
Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University said that if the results hold up to further analysis, and confirmation by a second experiment, "then it is RIP Standard Model".
However, even though the physicists at the Tevatron particle collider are 99.7 per cent sure of their data, this does not yet qualify as a discovery. For that, they need the probability to be better than one in a million.
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