This is big, really big! This may be the biggest news to hit the particle physics world in the the last 50 years. Scientists, analyzing the data collected at the Tevatron, Fermilab, have detected an anomaly that could well usher in a new dawn in theoretical physics and change the Standard Model as we know it now. The observation was a bump in the data, but in the ‘wrong’ place.
Scientists are excited about a Gaussian peak that has been observed on Wednesday, 6th April, centered at about 150 GeV with a spread of 2.5 GeV, corresponding to nearly 300 events.
Physicists are generally quite skeptical about any news of big breakthroughs. This ensures that the discoveries are really authentic. Most ‘discoveries’ are just mistakes in the code being used for data-analysis, or some human error or plain background fluctuations. All of these have to be ruled out. Coding errors can be ruled out by using many orthogonal samples of data, called ‘control sets’. Background fluctuations take a bit more effort, but routine analysis can eliminate it almost completely. A peak left after background elimination cannot be discarded.
Notwithstanding the fact that physicists are extremely skeptical, almost all major discoveries in high energy physics have been accidental. The key to such a discovery is rigorous analysis of data.
Is this the Higgs Boson?
The knee-jerk reaction was to suspect the discovery of the Higgs, the bosonic particle that is believed to endow all fundamental particles with mass. The Higgs boson, however, is ruled out, because if the Higgs could be produced at 140 GeV at a non-negligible rate, then we expect to see the characteristic decay jets, which would consist, mainly, of bottom quarks. However, such jets have not been observed, ruling out this possibility.
Is this a new force of nature?
It is too early to comment. The discovery of a new particle – a new boson – has to be confirmed. Only further investigation can answer this question.
What could fit the fill?
A new particle, which was coincidentally proposed in a paper a few days back, could fit the bill. The particle is called the Z’ boson, as compared to the Z boson. The Z’ boson is expected to decay via semi-leptonic (i.e. a mixture of hadrons and leptons) channels. Semi-leptonic jets have been observed. So, maybe, the Z’ is the ‘new’ particle.
The result now stands with a 3-sigma confidence level. This means that the possibility of ruling out the observation as a statistical fluctuation is less than 1 percent. Physicists look for a 6-sigma confidence level, which means that the doubts should reduce to less than 0.003%. To attain this level of confidence, scientists will need more sets of data and rigorous analysis of the same.
More data is on the way. As Prof. Nima Arkani-Hamed of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, notes, LHC should come up with much more data and copious events, if this is indeed a real discovery.
One thing is for sure: this is exciting. If this is true, this is pure gold for particle physicists.
UPDATE: Fermilab rejects new particle discovery after extensive data analysis. Read here.