New experiment on CERN finds out there are non-physical particles in our universe, but it's really hard to study them by conventional means.
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In a new experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), researchers are testing for the existence of particles that aren't supposed to exist—but which some physicists suspect might be real and thus be the ultimate answer to the Big Bang conundrum.
An experiment called “mono-X” studies a potential signal called mono-X, which may or may not be real. CERN
Since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, a new set of mysteries has surfaced about the fundamental building blocks of our universe. Among them are “dark matter,” which researchers believe makes up about 25 of the universe; and dark energy, which seems to be speeding the universe apart at an ever-increasing rate.
But even the Higgs, whose discovery was hailed as the “Eureka!” moment of particle physics, has raised new questions. Despite the Higgs’ status as a cornerstone of modern physics, many physicists still find it surprising that it has to exist in order for particles to have mass. For example, researchers are now studying a theoretical particle called a “vector boson” that, unlike the Higgs, is able to travel at the speed of light.
“The standard model of physics has worked brilliantly for three decades,” says Jim Olsen, a theoretical physicist at Michigan State University. “The Higgs boson answers a lot of questions, but there are still some big problems.”
The “mono-X” experiment, an acronym for “Mono-Photon Ettore-Caritatefere,” aims to search for this mysterious particle by scanning for photons, and then verifying whether the photons are attached to a more standard, known particle. The research is being done by researchers from the Italian group Ettore Caritatefere, who previously made a similar attempt, called “X-Ettore”, but that experiment was plagued by errors. If they succeed in this experiment, “we’ll know that there’s a particle like this,” the group’s spokeswoman, Elisa Crescitelli, says.
The researchers are optimistic about their chances. “We need this kind of experiment,” explains Crescitelli. In the X-Ettore experiment, the energy produced by the particle was measured at high precision and, from that, it was estimated that a particle with a mass of about 400 giga-electron volts (GeV), roughly 0.2 percent the mass of a proton, was created. But a new approach is required in the “mono-X” experiment, Crescitelli says, and if the particle is created in the collision, it will have to be detected directly. The “mono-X� experiment should start taking data in 2013, she says, and the result should be known in 2016. “If the result is negative, that would be very, very strange, because all the other experiments show that this particle is there,” says Crescitelli.
If the new experiment does fail to find a new particle, it will raise questions about the Standard Model, the main framework of physics that describes how particles and forces operate. Within the Standard Model, Crescitelli says, it is well established that there are six fundamental particles: the three quarks—up, down and charm—plus the electron and the positron. But physicists have come up with a number of hypothetical particles to explain certain experimental anomalies.
While many believe these so-called “new physics” particles are actually missing from the Standard Model, Crescitelli says, the new experiment, like the earlier Ettore experiments, will attempt to see whether the hypothetical particles are there.
“We might have to think of a new model, which is the way the Standard Model has to be,” says Crescitelli.
The search for new physics is already showing early signs of success. In June, the LHC experiments revealed that a new particle, which had been suspected by the Tevatron collider in Illinois, had been observed. The particle, known as a Higgs boson, is part of the mechanism that creates and stabilizes the properties of matter. But the latest Tevatron collider results, as well as a new measurement from the LHC, show that the Higgs may not be the entire story.
In the latest Tevatron experiment, the collider experiments found that in addition to the Higgs boson, the Standard Model also has a particle called a Z boson that acts as a messenger particle. The Z boson, named after the particle’s mass-energy, is one of the four basic forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. The results also revealed that, for the first time, the Standard Model also has an antiparticle to the Higgs boson.
“It looks like we will eventually have to have a quantum mechanical theory which makes predictions about the behavior of nature, and the Standard Model just isn’t the only model,” says Crescitelli. “And the most likely outcome is that we will have to think of a new model, which is the way the Standard Model has to be.”
The Crescitelli study uses the same Tevatron data as a previous study from UC Davis’s Steven Lee, but adds a new technique to explore the possible existence of the Higgs-Z messenger particle. The study shows that a number of the Higgs and Z boson particles have very different quantum numbers. This is an important hint that the Higgs and Z particles are not fundamental, and need to be thought of as “composite,” which means they are made of smaller building blocks. The composite Higgs may be the fundamental particle in the story of the Standard Model. The study may also shed light on the physics that is needed to better understand dark matter and the universe.
The findings support the idea that the Higgs boson and Z boson particles are not fundamental particles, but may actually be composed of something else.
“This might be an indication of the way things have to be, if we�re to be successful in this story,” says Crescitelli. “We�re suggesting that we�re not going to find any of the fundamental things like the quarks, but we might find that we�re the composites.”
Crescitelli’s findings are consistent with results from another recent study, this one using LHC data, that indicates that the Higgs and Z boson particles may be composed of other particles called axions, rather than being fundamental. These new findings from the Tevatron show that the idea of composite nature is an exciting idea, and perhaps necessary to a deeper understanding of particle physics.
A second important finding is that there is no evidence for the Higgs particle decaying into Z bosons. A Higgs particle that decays into Z bosons is an important component of the Higgs theory, and has been ruled out before by the Tevatron experiments. If the Higgs was composed of other particles, then the rate of Z boson decay into Higgs particles could be suppressed.
“Our results show that the simplest theory, the Standard Model, is not correct,” says Crescitelli.
Tevatron experiments, which have been searching for the Higgs for 17 years, will continue to collect data in 2010. If the Higgs particle isn�t found, Crescitelli says, it�s the start of a new era for particle physics.
�The Higgs particle appears to be a new type of particle that is fundamental, and not a composite particle,� says Crescitelli. �The question is,� he asks, �if the Higgs is composite, what kind of thing is it made of?�
Crescitelli says physicists have some ideas about what a composite Higgs might be made of. They�re waiting to see if the data coming from the Tevatron experiments backs up their ideas. The Higgs can either be made of nothing, or made of other elementary particles, including �heavy quarks� and �leptons.�
�We believe we will soon get experimental proof that the Higgs boson is a fundamental particle,� says Crescitelli.
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