Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva may have just broken particle physics — after detecting an anomalous signal not up to snuff with the standard model, and hinting at a new force of nature, according to a study shared in a preprint server and confirmed on CERN's official website.
CERN just went beyond the standard model
The Large Hadron Collider (LHCb) experiment at CERN officially announced new findings hinting at a violation of the Standard Model in particle physics. This came from an analysis of 10 years of data on how transient (or temporarily existing) and unstable particles called B mesons decay into more conventional forms of matter, like electrons.
More specifically, the new findings suggest a possible violation of the lepton flavor universality — which was announced during the Moriond conference on electroweak interactions of unified theories, in addition to an online CERN seminar by the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
The standard model grounds our scientific grasp of the subatomic world, and holds that particles will tend to break down into products like electrons at the exact same rate they do in heavier particles very similar to an electron — called muons.
However, new findings from CERN hint that something weird is going on. Instead of decaying in line with the standard model and producing muons and electrons at the same rate, B mesons are tending toward electron production, like it's the favored result.
'Intriguing hint' is still too early to call
"We would expect this particle to decay into the final state containing electrons and the final state containing muons at the same rate as each other," said Experimental Particle Physicist Chris Parkes of the University of Manchester in a report from The Guardian. "What we have is an intriguing hint that maybe these two processes don't happen at the same rate, but it's not conclusive."
In quantum physics, the new finding has a significance of 3.1 sigma, which means its likelihood of inaccuracy is roughly one in 1,000. To those less familiar with quantum physics this might sound promising, but in general, particle physicists are wary of jumping the gun until a new finding reaches five sigma, when the chances of the results being a fluke are only one in a few million.
"It's an intriguing hint, but we have seen sigmas come and go before," said Parkes. "It happens surprisingly frequently."
In particle physics, the standard model describes how particles and forces govern the subatomic universe. The theory was built piecemeal over the last half-century, and helps scientists describe how elementary particles called quarks construct neutrons and protons within atomic nuclei. It also explains how the two components of nuclei when combined with electrons compose all conventional matter.
New shade cast on the standard model
Included in particle physics are three of the four fundamental forces in nature: the weak force responsible for nuclear reactions inside the sun, and electromagnetism; a strong force binding atomic nuclei together.
Sadly, the standard model doesn't explain everything. There still exists a fourth force in the universe, one likely more familiar: gravity, which — while unbelievably powerful on the colossal scale of black holes — fails to account for roughly 95% of the universe physicists suspect is composed of something else entirely.
Consensus was and remains that most of the universe is made of dark energy, a cosmic force responsible for pushing the expansion of the universe for its entire lifespan, and also dark matter — an elusive substance that is holding the cosmic web of matter together — like an unseen skeleton.
However, this recent possible finding has to do with particle physics. And "[i]f it turns out, with extra analysis of additional processes, that we were able to confirm this, it would be extremely exciting," said Parkes. This would cast a new shadow on the standard model and create a necessity for something additional in the fundamental theory of particle physics, he added.
Corrections, too, bring us closer to a unified theory of physics
And Parkes thinks this latest research when compounded by other similar results from experimenting with B mesons creates a more convincing possibility.
"I would say there is cautious excitement," Parkes said. "We're intrigued because not only is this result quite significant, it fits the pattern of some previous results from LHCb and other experiments worldwide."
"There could be a new quantum force that makes B mesons break up into muons at the wrong rate," said Professor of Theoretical Physics Ben Allanach of the University of Cambridge. "It's sticking them together and stopping them decaying into muons at the rate we'd expect."
"This force could help explain the peculiar pattern of different matter particles' masses," added Allanach. While this has yet to be confirmed, particle physics is evolving and with it — the shape of a fundamental unifying theory of physics.
This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.
Correction: This article has been updated. The text previously stated the likelihood of accuracy of the study's findings is 1 in 1,000. This has been corrected to say that the likelihood of the inaccuracy of the study's findings is 1 in 1,000. IE regrets this error.