The most precise W boson measurement might lead to a paradigm shift in physics

The discovery changes our understanding of everything.
Chris Young
The Collider Detector at Fermilab.Fermilab

The world of physics may have been turned on its head.

That's because the W boson has a much higher mass than theoretical predictions, according to the most precise measurement taken yet of the elementary particle.

Researchers collected and analyzed almost a decade of data from the Tevatron particle accelerator, which provided measurements twice as precise as the previous best by the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF), a press statement reveals.

The discovery completely changes what we know about one of the cornerstones of the standard model of physics, which has guided our understanding of the universe for years. Developed in the 60s and 70s the standard model of physics is one of the most successful scientific theories in history. It was used to predict the existence of the W boson two decades before scientists proved it exists in experiments.

But scientific theories are there to be iterated upon and, even on some occasions, blown wide open.

Analyzing 450 trillion particle collisions

In their paper, published in the journal Science, the scientists outline how they measured the W boson's mass with such precision with a team of 400 scientists at CDF. 

In total, the scientists scrutinized a dataset of approximately 450 trillion collisions and measured the W boson's mass as being approximately 157,000 times that of an electron.

Crucially, the paper also calls for independent confirmation of the results, so that the scientific community can agree on where to go next.

In an interview with IFLScience, co-author Professor Ashutosh Kotwal highlighted the fact that the standard model of physics "has been one of the most successful theories in all of science." But "the theory makes a prediction for the value of the W boson mass, motivating us to make an equally precise measurement to compare to and test this theory. Our measurement is significantly different from the theory. This could indicate a new principle at work in nature."

Kotwal added that the new measurement is "the most significant deviation ever observed from a fundamental prediction of the Standard Model. As such, it is our biggest clue yet that we do not completely understand the weak nuclear force or all the particles that experience this force. This measurement points towards exciting new discoveries in particle physics for years to come."

Going beyond the standard model

This isn't the first time that a team of researchers has pointed toward potential deviations from the standard model of physics. Last year, the Muon-g2 experiment presented its results after specifically setting out to study discrepancies in the standard model.

The new CDF study is the most precise yet, and the implications on our understanding of the universe are yet to be fully understood. One possibility is that the physics community simply tweaks the standard model to work with the new measurement.

Another is that we could be witnessing the beginnings of a paradigm shift that completely alters how we understand the universe, leading to a whole host of exciting new physics experiments and revelations in the coming years.

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