The subatomic universe is an intricate mosaic of particles and forces. The Standard Model of particle physics is a time-tested instruction manual that precisely predicts how particles and forces behave. But it’s incomplete, ignoring phenomena such as gravity and dark matter.
Today the LHCb experiment at CERN European research center released a result that could be an early indication of new, undiscovered physics beyond the Standard Model.
However, more data is needed before LHCb scientists can definitively claim they’ve found a crack in the world’s most robust roadmap to the subatomic universe.
“In particle physics, you can’t just snap your fingers and claim a discovery,” says Marie-Hélène Schune, a researcher on the LHCb experiment from Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Orsay, France. “It’s not magic. It’s long, hard work and you must be obstinate when facing problems. We always question everything and never take anything for granted.”
The LHCb experiment records and analyzes the decay patterns of rare hadrons—particles made of quarks—that are produced in the Large Hadron Collider’s energetic proton-proton collisions. By comparing the experimental results to the Standard Model’s predictions, scientists can search for discrepancies. Significant deviations between the theory and experimental results could be an early indication of an undiscovered particle or force at play.
This new result looks at hadrons containing a bottom quark as they transform into hadrons containing a strange quark. This rare decay pattern can generate either two electrons or two muons as byproducts. Electrons and muons are different types or “flavors” of particles called leptons. The Standard Model predicts that the production of electrons and muons should be equally favorable—essentially a subatomic coin toss every time this transformation occurs.
“As far as the Standard Model is concerned, electrons, muons and tau leptons are completely interchangeable,” Schune says. “It’s completely blind to lepton flavors; only the large mass difference of the tau lepton plays a role in certain processes. This 50-50 prediction for muons and electrons is very precise.”
But instead of finding a 50-50 ratio between muons and electrons, the latest results from the LHCb experiment show that it’s more like 40 muons generated for every 60 electrons.
“If this initial result becomes stronger with more data, it could mean that there are other, invisible particles involved in this process that see flavor,” Schune says. “We’ll leave it up to the theorists’ imaginations to figure out what’s going on.”
However, just like any coin-toss, it’s difficult to know if this discrepancy is the result of an unknown favoritism or the consequence of chance. To delineate between these two possibilities, scientists wait until they hit a certain statistical threshold before claiming a discovery, often 5 sigma.
“Five sigma is a measurement of statistical deviation and means there is only a 1-in-3.5-million chance that the Standard Model is correct and our result is just an unlucky statistical fluke,” Schune says. “That’s a pretty good indication that it’s not chance, but rather the first sightings of a new subatomic process.”
Currently, this new result is at approximately 2.5 standard deviations, which means there is about a 1-in-125 possibility that there’s no new physics at play and the experimenters are just the unfortunate victims of statistical fluctuation.
This isn’t the first time that the LHCb experiment has seen unexpected behavior in related processes. Hassan Jawahery from the University of Maryland also works on the LHCb experiment and is studying another particle decay involving bottom quarks transforming into charm quarks. He and his colleagues are measuring the ratio of muons to tau leptons generated during this decay.
“Correcting for the large mass differences between muons and tau leptons, we’d expect to see about 25 taus produced for every 100 muons,” Jawahery says. “We measured a ratio of 34 taus for every 100 muons.”
On its own, this measurement is below the line of statistical significance needed to raise an eyebrow. However, two other experiments—the BaBar experiment at SLAC and the Belle experiment in Japan—also measured this process and saw something similar.
“We might be seeing the first hints of a new particle or force throwing its weight around during two independent subatomic processes,” Jawahery says. “It’s tantalizing, but as experimentalists we are still waiting for all these individual results to grow in significance before we get too excited.”
More data and improved experimental techniques will help the LHCb experiment and its counterparts narrow in on these processes and confirm if there really is something funny happening behind the scenes in the subatomic universe.
“Conceptually, these measurements are very simple,” Schune says. “But practically, they are very challenging to perform. These first results are all from data collected between 2011 and 2012 during Run 1 of the LHC. It will be intriguing to see if data from Run 2 shows the same thing.”