Since the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) began smashing ions together again at record energies in December of last year, more than 300 papers have been released by researchers working on the enormous collaborative endeavor. Four of them have been accepted by Physical Review Letters, which, when read together, seem to hint at a tantalizing possibility: Another new subatomic particle has been detected.
Although most famous for detecting the Higgs boson, the particle responsible for bestowing mass upon others and validating the Standard Model of Physics, it’s highly likely there are other subatomic particles out there waiting to be discovered by the device. Rumors have been around for several months now that another discovery is on the horizon, and these new studies give credence to the idea.
However, any new theoretical physics revelations are still many, many particle collisions away from being confirmed. The mysterious data “blip” generating all this excitement is not yet statistically significant, and it may be that researchers don’t yet have the scientific understanding to comprehend it.
“Though the results are extremely intriguing, more data are required to establish if the excess is real, or a statistical fluctuation,” wrote Robert Garisto, the editor of Physical Review Letters, in an accompanying editorial. “We think that this set [of studies] gives readers a sense of the kind of new physics that would be required to explain the data, if confirmed.”
The blip was discovered as part of Phase 2 of the LHC's operation. CERN via YouTube
Just as a new phase of particle collisions began at the end of 2015, two of the experiments at the LHC – ATLAS and CMS – reported that several collisions produced more photons than expected. These flashes of light could just have been noise in the data, accidentally generating information that isn’t representative of anything new.
On the other hand, this data blip could be something incredible: As one of the studies posits, it could be a heavier relative of the Higgs boson; on the other hand, it could be revealing that the Higgs itself, or another mysterious massive particle, is made of smaller subatomic building blocks.
These new papers also flirt with some more controversial ideas. One of the studies theorizes it could be a particle that weakly interacts with others, and exists within the supersymmetry theory. This theory, which suggests that all particles are paired with a “superpartner” particle of higher mass, has been looking somewhat shaky as of late, however.
Another of the papers suggests that the new particle could be made of two exotic quarks that defy the current Standard Model, held together by a perhaps novel force similar to the strong nuclear force.
Previously, some physicists have even wondered if the data blip might be a graviton, a particle that “carries” gravitational force; this particle, if discovered, may be able to finally solve one of the greatest conundrums in physics – combining a theory of gravity with the other three fundamental forces of the universe.
If the data turns out to be just noise, then it would be a shame, but at least the enigma would have been solved. If any of these new ideas are proven correct, however, we could see a revolution in theoretical physics by the end of the summer.