The Large Hadron Collider might be on the verge of a huge discovery
Generally speaking, people shouldn’t get too excited about long-shot theories, but when confirmation has the potential to break the standard model of physics, that’s definitely the exception. A couple of interesting results from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have got physicists wondering if we’re on the verge of just that.
“If this thing turns out to be real, it’s a 10 on the Richter scale of particle physics. One’s excitometer gets totally broken,” physicist John Ellis from King’s College London told The Guardian.
Back in December, the Large Hadron Collider’s two main detectors – Atlas and CMS – both picked up on the same blip in their data, which can’t be explained by our current understanding of physics. Both detectors spiked activity at around 750 giga-electronvolts (GeV): more light particles than we would predict if our knowledge of physics is completely perfect.
The data has now been examined by both the Atlas and CMS teams, who have presented their main findings: that the readings can’t be discounted as a statistical error. CMS’s statistical significance is 3.4 sigma, while Atlas puts it at 3.6 sigma. For something to be scientifically accepted, you need a five-sigma rating. In layman’s terms, as The Guardian points out, the chances of 3.6 sigma being a fluke is around the same as getting heads five times in a row when flipping a coin – unlikely, but not impossible. For the five-sigma mark, you need the equivalent of 21 heads in a row – or a probability lower than one in three million.
Professor Ellis, for one, is keeping his feet on the ground, explaining: “I would love for it to persist, but I’ve seen so many effects come and go that I have to say in my heart of hearts I’m not very optimistic. It would be such a fantastic discovery if it were true, precisely because it’s unexpected, and because it would be the tip of an iceberg of new forms of matter.”
But let’s be optimistic for a moment and assume it will be proven this year. What would the results mean? One possibility is a new particle resembling the Higgs boson discovered back in 2012. But it would be 12 times heavier, weighing around 1,500 GeV according to scientists analysing the data. Another possibility is even more exciting for physicists: it could be the sign of a graviton – a particle that was first theorised in the 1930s, but is yet to be proven.
When will we know more? This year, hopefully. Right now the Large Hadron Collider is down for its annual maintenance, but is due to be back smashing particles together by the end of April. Watch this space.
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Images: Har Gobind Singh Khalsa and Image Editor used under Creative Commons
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