The LHCb collaboration has observed a type of four-quark particle that has never been seen before. The discovery, presented at a recent seminar at CERN and described in a paper posted today on the arXiv preprint server, is likely to be the first of a previously undiscovered class of particles.
Quarks typically combine together in groups of twos and threes to form particles called hadrons. For decades, however, theorists have predicted the existence of four-quark and five-quark hadrons, which are sometimes described as tetraquarks and pentaquarks. In recent years experiments including the LHCb have confirmed the existence of several of these exotic hadrons. These particles made of unusual combinations of quarks are an ideal “laboratory” for studying one of the four known fundamental forces of nature, the strong interaction that binds protons, neutrons and the atomic nuclei that make up matter. Detailed knowledge of the strong interaction is also essential for determining whether new, unexpected processes are a sign of new physics or just standard physics.
“Particles made up of four quarks are already exotic, and the one we have just discovered is the first to be made up of four heavy quarks of the same type, specifically two charm quarks and two charm antiquarks,” says the outgoing spokesperson of the LHCb collaboration, Giovanni Passaleva. “Up until now, the LHCb and other experiments had only observed tetraquarks with two heavy quarks at most and none with more than two quarks of the same type.”
“These exotic heavy particles provide extreme and yet theoretically fairly simple cases with which to test models that can then be used to explain the nature of ordinary matter particles, like protons or neutrons. It is therefore very exciting to see them appear in collisions at the LHC for the first time,” says the incoming LHCb spokesperson, Chris Parkes.
Sifting through the full LHCb datasets from the first and second runs of the Large Hadron Collider, which took place from 2009 to 2013 and from 2015 to 2018 respectively, the researchers detected a bump in the mass distribution of a pair of J/ψ particles, which consist of a charm quark and a charm antiquark. The bump has a statistical significance of more than five standard deviations, the usual threshold for claiming the discovery of a new particle, and it corresponds to a mass at which particles composed of four charm quarks are predicted to exist.
As with previous tetraquark discoveries, it is not completely clear whether the new particle is a “true tetraquark”—that is, a system of four quarks tightly bound together, or a pair of two-quark particles weakly bound in a molecule-like structure. Either way, the new tetraquark will help theorists test models of quantum chromodynamics, the theory of the strong interaction.
Editor's note: A version of this article was previously published by CERN.