During the mid- to late-twentieth century, quantum physicists picked apart the unified theory of physics that Einstein’s theory of relativity offered. The physics of the large was governed by gravity, but only quantum physics could describe observations of the small. Since then, a theoretical tug-o-war between gravity and the other three fundamental forces has continued as physicists try to extend gravity or quantum physics to subsume the other as more fundamental.
Recent measurements from the Large Hadron Collider show a discrepancy with Standard Model predictions that may hint at entirely new realms of the universe underlying what’s described by quantum physics. Although repeated tests are required to confirm these anomalies, a confirmation would signify a turning point in our most fundamental description of particle physics to date.
Quantum physicists found in a recent study that mesons don’t decay into kaon and muon particles often enough, according to the Standard Model predictions of frequency. The authors agree that enhancing the power of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will reveal a new kind of particle responsible for this discrepancy. Although errors in data or theory may have caused the discrepancy, instead of a new particle, an improved LHC would prove a boon for several projects on the cutting edge of physics.
The Standard Model is a well-established fundamental theory of quantum physics that describes three of the four fundamental forces believed to govern our physical reality. Quantum particles occur in two basic types, quarks and leptons. Quarks bind together in different combinations to build particles like protons and neutrons. We’re familiar with protons, neutrons, and electrons because they’re the building blocks of atoms.
The “lepton family” features heavier versions of the electron — like the muon — and the quarks can coalesce into hundreds of other composite particles. Two of these, the Bottom and Kaon mesons, were culprits in this quantum mystery. The Bottom meson (B) decays to a Kaon meson (K) accompanied by a muon (mu-) and anti-muon (mu+) particle.
They found a 2.5 sigma variance, or 1 in 80 probability, “which means that, in the absence of unexpected effects, i.e. new physics, a distribution more deviant than observed would be produced about 1.25 percent of the time,” Professor Spencer Klein, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Futurism. Klein was not involved in the study.
This means the frequency of mesons decaying into strange quarks during the LHC proton-collision tests fell a little below the expected frequency. “The tension here is that, with a 2.5 sigma [or standard deviation from the normal decay rate], either the data is off by a little bit, the theory is off by a little bit, or it’s a hint of something beyond the standard model,” Klein said. “I would say, naïvely, one of the first two is correct.”
To Klein, this variance is inevitable considering the high volume of data run by computers for LHC operations. “With Petabyte-(1015 bytes)-sized datasets from the LHC, and with modern computers, we can make a very large number of measurements of different quantities,” Klein said. “The LHC has produced many hundreds of results. Statistically, some of them are expected to show 2.5 sigma fluctuations.” Klein noted that particle physicists usually wait for a 5-sigma fluctuation before crying wolf — corresponding to roughly a 1-in-3.5-million fluctuation in data.
These latest anomalous observations do not exist in a vacuum. “The interesting aspect of the two taken in combination is how aligned they are with other anomalous measurements of processes involving B mesons that had been made in previous years,” Dr. Tevong You, co-author of the study and junior research fellow in theoretical physics at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, told Futurism. “These independent measurements were less clean but more significant. Altogether, the chance of measuring these different things and having them all deviate from the Standard Model in a consistent way is closer to 1 in 16000 probability, or 4 sigma,” Tevong said.
Barring statistical or theoretical errors, Tevong suspects that the anomalies mask the presence of entirely new particles, called leptoquarks or Z prime particles. Inside bottom mesons, quantum excitations of new particles could be interfering with normal decay frequency. In the study, researchers conclude that an upgraded LHC could confirm the existence of new particles, making a major update to the Standard Model in the process.
“It would be revolutionary for our fundamental understanding of the universe,” said Tevong. “For particle physics […] it would mean that we are peeling back another layer of Nature and continuing on a journey of discovering the most elementary building blocks. This would have implications for cosmology, since it relies on our fundamental theories for understanding the early universe,” he added. “The interplay between cosmology and particle physics has been very fruitful in the past. As for dark matter, if it emerges from the same new physics sector in which the Zprime or leptoquark is embedded, then we may also find signs of it when we explore this new sector.”
So far, scientists at the LHC have only observed ghosts and anomalies hinting at particles that exist at higher energy levels. To prove their existence, physicists “need to confirm the indirect signs […], and that means being patient while the LHCb experiment gathers more data on B decays to make a more precise measurement,” Tevong said. “We will also get an independent confirmation by another experiment, Belle II, that should be coming online in the next few years. After all that, if the measurement of B decays still disagrees with the predictions of the Standard Model, then we can be confident that something beyond the Standard Model must be responsible, and that would point towards leptoquarks or Zprime particles as the explanation,” he added.
To establish their existence, physicists would then aim to produce the particles in colliders the same way Bottom mesons or Higgs bosons are produced, and watch them decay. “We need to be able to see a leptoquark or Zprime pop out of LHC collisions,” Tevong said. “The fact that we haven’t seen any such exotic particles at the LHC (so far) means that they may be too heavy, and more energy will be required to produce them. That is what we estimated in our paper: the feasibility of directly discovering leptoquarks or Zprime particles at future colliders with higher energy.”
Seeking out new particles in the LHC isn’t a waiting game. The likelihood of observing new phenomena is directly proportional to how many new particles pop up in collisions. “The more the particle appears the higher the chances of spotting it amongst many other background events taking place during those collisions,” Tevong explained. For the purposes of finding new particles, he likens it to searching for a needle in a haystack; it’s easier to find a needle if the haystack is filled with them, as opposed to one. “The rate of production depends on the particle’s mass and couplings: heavier particles require more energy to produce,” he said.
This is why Tevong and co-authors B.C. Allanach and Ben Gripaios recommend either extending the LHC loop’s length, thus reducing the amount of magnetic power needed to accelerate particles, or replacing the current magnets with stronger ones.
According to Tevong, the CERN laboratory is slated to keep running the LHC in present configuration until mid-2030s. Afterwards, they might upgrade the LHC’s magnets, roughly doubling its strength. In addition to souped-up magnets, the tunnel could see an enlargement from present 27 to 100 km (17 to 62 miles). “The combined effect […] would give about seven times more energy than the LHC,” Tevong said. “The timescale for completion would be at least in the 2040s, though it is still too early to make any meaningful projections.”
If the leptoquark or Z prime anomalies are confirmed, the Standard Model has to change, Tevong reiterates. “It is very likely that it has to change at energy scales directly accessible to the next generation of colliders, which would guarantee us answers,” he added. While noting that there’s no telling if dark matter has anything to do with the physics behind Zprimes or leptoquarks, the best we can do is seek “as many anomalous measurements as possible, whether at colliders, smaller particle physics experiments, dark matter searches, or cosmological and astrophysical observations,” he said. “Then the dream is that we may be able to form connections between various anomalies that can be linked by a single, elegant theory.”