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Science

Fermilab Collider's 'Last Smash' May Have Found Unknown Particle

Higgs event, Higgs Boson

[updated post: Sept, 23, 2011; see end note] Slated to be shuttered indefinitely (or sold for parts) later this year, the nation’s largest particle collider — the Tevatron — may have detected traces of a previously unknown specie of particle that could potentially alter Quantum Theory.

Located at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) at the University of Chicago in Batavia, IL, the Tevatron has been pivotal in finding evidence of several particles* formerly only predicted by Quantum Theory. These discoveries have buttressed the validity of what’s known as the Standard Model of particle physics. It is the second most powerful particle collider in the world, just behind the Large Hadron Coliider (LHC) located at CERN in Switzerland.

There has been a slight hope that before the collider was finally shut down  it might uncover evidence of the mighty Higgs Boson — the so-called “god particle” that that confers mass onto most other particles in the quantum universe.

But in what may be a quantum “last hurrah”, with a twist, one of the collider’s two detectors has recently detected a mysterious signal that, so far, neither The Standard Model, nor the collaborating team of physicists pouring over the data, can explain. All that they can say, so far, is that it is definitely not the Higgs.

elementary particles, Standard Model, quantun physics
An image showing 6 quarks, 6 leptons and the interacting particles, according to the Standard Model

While  scanning the aftermath of  certain proton – anti-proton collisions inside the machine’s CDF detector, physicists (Aaltonen et al) noticed a strange “blip” that could be explained by (positing) a previously unknown particle. If validated, this would be the first time that a particle was discovered that had not been intentionally sought after.

Specifically, the physicists were looking at the invariant mass distribution following a series of collisions  in which a large particle called a W boson, and one even heavier, unknown particle, were produced. The observed distribution of the putative, unknown particle (measured in terms of its energy-mass content) was in excess of 120 – 160 GeV/c² (that’s 160 billion electron volts).

According to the report** published ahead of print earlier this month,  “This mass range is not described by current theoretical predictions within the statistical and systematic uncertainties.”

Of course, there is a chance that the detector’ s results are in error, but, if the results are validated, there is only a tiny chance that it’s just a statistical aberration. The “gold standard” in particle physics for statistical validation is referred to as ‘5-Sigma’ (5 standard deviations) which, if achieved, would mean that the the results are real.

Aerial photo of the Tevatron at Fermilab, which resembles a figure eight. The main accelerator is the ring above; the one below (about one-third the diameter, despite appearances) is for preliminary acceleration, beam cooling and storage, etc.

Meanwhile, Aaltonen’s team continues to study the properties of this unaccounted for “excess” and will be using the Tevatron’s other detector, the DZero, to try and duplicate the results. Results are expected soon.

As reported here on PS earlier this year, the famed “atom smasher” is falling victim to cost-cutting measures that are roiling “big science” budgets these days. My previous post on the collider actually garnered a rather touching homage (comment) to the mighty Tevatron — so dear is it to the hearts and minds of particle physics fans.

Let’s hope that the mystery is solved before the great atom smasher’s demise — or better, that the mysterious new particle offers justification for keeping the Tevatron alive just a bit longer.

Just a few months ago, no one could have guess at this development.

Sometimes the Universe throws a curve ball at you (or, a curve particle, in this case).

For more reading, check out Sci Am’s ‘U.S. Collider Offers Physicists a Glimpse of a Possible New Particle’

UPDATE: As of September, 2011, the Tevatron’s second detector, the DZero, has failed to replicate/confirm the results recorded by the CDF detector. Meanwhile, the LHC at CERN, operating at half power, has offered “hints” of the famed Higgs Boson, but so far, no sign of  the “super partner particles” sought after by String theorists and Super Symmetry theorists.

* For example, the last particle discovered by the Tevatron was the tau neutrino, in 2000

** The preliminary report  Invariant Mass Distribution…

Top Image: (Higgs Boson) Lucas Taylor, CERN

Chart: (Standard Model of Particle Physics) MissMJ ; CC – By 3.0

Fermilab: DOE




6 comments
  1. Aaron M.

    There are a few mistakes in your post. Here are the most glaring ones.

    First, Fermilab isn’t at UIUC, it’s in Batavia, IL and is operated by the University of Chicago and the Universities Research Association (URA).

    The LHC at CERN operates at 3.5 times the center-of-mass energy of the Tevatron, hardly close in energy.

    The units GeV/c^2 (read as “gee-ee-vee per cee-squared”) are units of mass where the unit “c” is the speed of light, not centimeters. This comes from E=mc^2.

    1. Michael Ricciardi

      Aaron:

      Thanks for your comments and those corrections. The ‘c^2′ was a real “doh!’ moment for me 🙂 , I mis-copied the units as ‘/cm^2’ which I should have picked up on, as electron volts are described as a ratio to the speed of light (‘doh!)

      Thanks for the correction in the location of Fermilab — but I note that this error comes from a mainstream science press article; regardless, I should have checked that.

      As to your comment about the relative power of the two colliders (Tevatron v. LHC)…I state only that the Tevatron is “the second most powerful collider” …how much less powerful (than the LHC) was never stated, nor was there any comparison (in terms of energy levels achievable v. particles discoverable) in the post…So, I’m not sure where your “hardly close in energy” comment is coming from.

      That said, and despite the relatively weaker Tevaton…a weaker, but WORKING, collider (the Tev) is far better that a STRONGER, but continuously malfunctioning collider (LHC) 🙂

  2. Michael R.

    Mr. Pal

    thanks for your comment…you wrote:

    “it is impossible to find any traces of Higgs boson as a quantum particle in the Hadron collider”

    So then, billions of ‘euros were spent to find something that the world’s physics community thinks is discoverable….but, you know better…eh?

    As to your patent troubles, what type of theoretical physics discovery/research requires a patent?

  3. Anadish Kumar Pal

    The discovery of gravity’s exact mechanism along with that of dark matter has already taken place, way back in autumn 2010. I know from my theoretical understanding that it is impossible to find any traces of Higgs boson as a quantum particle in the Hadron collider, neither can it show the existence of dark matter. The details of my discovery of how gravitation exactly works, http://www.anadish.com/ , and how it is produced in the framework of quantum mechanics are lying in wraps with the USPTO and I can only make it entirely public after there is clarity on how the USPTO is going to settle the issue of secrecy on my application. I consciously did not report to any peer-reviewed journal, fearing discrimination, because of my non-institutional status as a researcher. However, if the USPTO also continues with their non-committal secrecy review under LARS Level 2 (find the PDF of Private PAIR of the USPTO on my site), then, anyway, my discovery may not get published for a long time to come, in spite of me having filed the US patent application (US 13/045,558) on March 11, 2011, after filing a mandatory Indian patent application on January 11, 2011. Till, I find a clue to come out of the maze of government regulations, unless, of course, the USPTO decides to put it out of secrecy.

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