Has CERN discovered a new particle or not? Nobody knows yet, although we are now two steps closer than in December when the first signs of a possible discovery were first revealed.
First step: both the ATLAS and CMS experiments showed yesterday at the Moriond conference that the signal remains after re-analyzing the 2015 data with improved calibrations and reconstruction techniques. The faint signal still stands, even slightly stronger (see the Table). CMS has added new data not included earlier and collected during a magnet malfunction. Thanks to much effort and ingenuity, the reanalysis now includes 20% more data. Meanwhile, ATLAS showed that all data collected at lower energy up to 2012 were also compatible with the presence of a new particle.
The table below shows the results presented by CMS and ATLAS in December 2015 and February 2016. Two hypotheses were tested, assuming different characteristics for the hypothetical new particle: the “spin 0” case corresponds to a new type of Higgs boson, while “spin 2” denotes a graviton.
The label “local” means how strong the new signal appears locally at a mass of 750 or 760 GeV, while “global” refers to the probability of finding a small excess over a broad range of mass values. In physics, statistical fluctuations come and go. One is bound to find a small anomaly when looking all over the place, which is why it is wise to look at the bigger picture. So globally, the excess of events observed so far is still very mild, far from the 5σ criterion required to claim a discovery. The fact that both experiments found it independently is what is so compelling.
But mostly, the second step, we are closer to potentially confirming the presence of a new particle simply because the restart of the Large Hadron Collider is now imminent. New data are expected for the first week of May. Within 2-3 months, both experiments will then know.
We need more data to confirm or refute the existence of a new particle beyond any possible doubt. And that’s what experimental physicists are paid to do: state what is known about Nature’s laws when there is not even the shadow of a doubt.
That does not mean than in the meantime, we are not dreaming since if this were confirmed, it would be the biggest breakthrough in particle physics in decades. Already, there is a frenzy among theorists. As of 1 March, 263 theoretical papers have been written on the subject since everybody is trying to find out what this could be.
Why is this so exciting? If this turns out to be true, it would be the first particle to be discovered outside the Standard Model, the current theoretical framework. The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 had been predicted and simply completed an existing theory. This was a feat in itself but a new, unpredicted particle would at long last reveal the nature of a more encompassing theory that everybody suspects exists but that nobody has found yet. Yesterday at the Moriond conference, Alessandro Strumia, a theorist from CERN, also predicted that this particle would probably come with a string of companions.
Theorists have spent years trying to imagine what the new theory could be while experimentalists have deployed heroic efforts, sifting through huge amounts of data looking for the smallest anomaly. No need to say then that the excitement is tangible at CERN right now as everybody is holding their breath, waiting for new data.
To learn more about particle physics and what might be discovered at the LHC, don’t miss my upcoming book : « Who cares about particle physics : Making sense of the Higgs boson, Large Hadron Collider and CERN »
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