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Ricky Nathvani | |

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The Four-Leafed Clovers of Subatomic Particles: Tetraquarks

Hadrons, the particles made of quarks, are almost unanimously produced in the two or three quark varieties in particle colliders. However, in the last decade or so, a new frontier has opened up in subatomic physics. Four-quark particles have begun to be observed, the most recent being announced last Thursday by a collaboration at Fermilab. These rare, fleetingly lived particles have the potential to shed some light on the Strong nuclear force and how it shapes our world.

The discovery of a new subatomic particle was announced last Thursday by the DØ (DZero) collaboration at Fermilab in Chicago. DØ researchers analysed data from the Tevatron, a proton-antiproton collider based at Fermilab. The new found particle sports the catchy name “X(5568)” (It’s labelled by the observed mass of 5,568 Megaelectron-volts or MeV. That’s about six times heavier than a proton.) X(5568) is a form of “tetraquark”, a rarer variety of the particles known as hadrons. Tetraquarks consist of two quarks and two antiquarks (rather than the usual three quarks or quark-antiquark pairs that make up hadrons particle physicists are familiar with). While similar tetraquark particles have been observed before, the new addition breaks the mould by consisting of four quarks of totally different flavours: bottom, strange, up and down.

[Regular readers and those familiar with the theory of QCD may wish to skip to the section marked ——]

a) An example of a quark-antiquark pair, known as Mesons. b) An example of a three-quark particle, known as Baryons. c) An example of a tetraquark (four quarks) Source: APS/Alan Stonebraker, via Physics Viewpoint, DOI: 10.1103/Physics.6.69

The particle’s decay is best explained Strong force, aptly named since it’s the strongest known force in the universe[1], which also acts to hold quarks together in more stable configurations such as inside the proton. The Strong force is described by a theory known as Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD for short), a crucial part of the Standard Model of particle physics. The properties of X(5568) will provide precision tests of the Standard Model, as well as improving our understanding of the nature of Confinement. This is a dimly understood process by which quarks are bound up together to form the particles (such as protons) that make up most of the visible matter in the universe.

Quarks are defined by the strong force, being the only particles known to physics that interact via QCD. They were originally conceived of in 1964 by two of the early pioneers of particle physics Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig, who posited the idea of “quarks” to explain the properties of a plethora of particles that were discovered in the mid-twentieth century. After a series of experiments in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the evidence in favour of the quark hypothesis grew much stronger[2] and it was accepted that many of the particles that interacted and decayed very quickly (due to the magnitude of the strong force) in detectors were in fact made up of these quarks, which are now known to come in six different varieties known as “flavours”. A more precise model of the strong force, which came to be known as QCD, was also verified in such experiments.

QCD is a very difficult theory to draw predictions from because unlike electromagnetism (the force responsible for holding atoms together and transmitting light between objects), the “force carriers” of QCD known as gluons are self-interacting. Whereas light, or photons, simply pass through one another, gluons pull on one another and quarks in complex ways that give rise to the phenomenon of confinement: quarks are never observed in isolation, only as part of a group of other quarks/antiquarks. These groups of quarks and anti-quarks are what we call Hadrons (hence the name Large Hadron Collider). This self interaction arises from the fact that, unlike light which simply couples to positive or negative charges, QCD has a more complicated structure based on three charges labelled as Red, Green and Blue (which confusingly, have nothing to do with real colours, but are instead based on a mathematical symmetry known as SU(3)).

The hadrons discovered in the twentieth century tended to come in pairs of three quarks or quark-antiquark pairs. Although we now know there is nothing in the theory of QCD that suggests you can’t have particles consisting of four, or even five quarks/antiquarks, such particles were never observed, and in fact even some of the finest minds in theoretical physics (Edward Witten and Sidney Coleman) once thought that QCD would not permit such particles to exist. Like clovers, however, although the fourfold or even fivefold variety would be much rarer to come by it turns out such states did, in fact, exist and could be observed.



A visualisation of the production and decay of X(5568) to mesons in the Tevatron collider. Source: Fermilab http://news.fnal.gov/

The first hints of the existence of tetraquarks were at the Belle experiment, Japan in 2003, with the observation of a state called X(3872) (again, labelled by its mass of 3872 MeV). One of the most plausible explanations for this anomalous resonance[3] was a tetraquark model, which in 2013, an analysis by the LHCb experiment at CERN found to be a compatible explanation of the same resonance found in their detector. The same year, Belle and the BESIII experiment in China both found a resonance with the same characteristics, labelled Zc(3900), which is now believed to be the first independently, experimentally observed tetraquark. The most recent evidence for the existence of tetraquarks, prior to last Thursday’s announcement, was found by the LHCb experiment in 2014, the Z(4430). This verified an earlier result from Belle in 2007, with an astonishingly high statistical significance of 13.9σ (for comparison, one typically claims a discovery with a significance of 5σ). LHCb would also go on, unexpectedly, to find a pentaquark (four quarks and an antiquark) state in 2015, which could provide a greater understanding of QCD and even a window into the study of neutron stars.

Z(4430) was discovered from the analysis of its decay into mesons (hadrons consisting of quark-antiquark pairs), specifically the ψ’ and π mesons from the decay B0 → K + ψ’  π. In the analysis of the B0 decay, it was found that the Z(4430) was needed as an intermediate particle state to explain the resonant behaviour of the ψ’ and π. The LHCb detector, whose asymmetric design and high resolution makes it particularly well suited for the job, reconstructs these mesons and looks at their kinematic properties to determine the shape and properties of the resonance, which were found to be consistent with a tetraquark model. The recent discovery of X(5568) by the DØ collaboration involved a similar reconstruction from Bs and π mesons, which was used to infer its quark flavour structure (b, s, u, d, though which two are the particles and which two are the antiparticles remains to be determined).

X(5568) is found to have a large width (22 MeV) in the distribution of its decays, implying that it decays very quickly, best explained by QCD. Since quarks cannot change flavours in QCD interactions (while they can do so in weak nuclear interactions), this is what allowed DØ to determine its quark content. The other properties of this anomalous particle, such as its mass and its lack of spin (i.e. S = 0) are measured from the kinematics of the mesons it produces, and can help increase our understanding of how QCD combines the quarks in such an unfamiliar arrangement.

The two models for tetraquarks: Left, a single bound state of four quarks. Right, a pair of mesons bound to one another in orbit, resembing a four quark state. Source: Fermilab http://news.fnal.gov (Particle Physicists have a strange relationship with Comic Sans)

One of the long-standing controversies surrounding tetraquark states is whether the states are truly a joint four particle state or in fact a sort of molecule of two strongly bound mesons, which although they form a bound state of four particles in total, is actually analogous to two separate atoms in a molecule rather than a single, heavy atom. The analysis from DØ, based on X(5568)’s mass seems to imply that it’s the former, a single particle of four quarks tightly bound in an exotic hadron, though the jury is still out on the matter.

DØ’s discovery is based on an analysis of the historic data collected from the Tevatron from the 28 years it was operating, since the collider itself ceased operation 2011. Despite LHCb having found tetraquark candidates in the past and being suited to finding such a particle again, it has not yet independently verified the existence of X(5568). LHCb will now review their own data as well as future data that will recommence being collected later this year, to see if they too observe this unprecedented result and hopefully improve our understanding of its properties and whether they are consistent with the Standard Model. This is definitely a result to look out for later this year and should shed some light on one of the fundamental forces of nature and how it acts to create the particles, such as protons, that make up the world around us.

[1] That is, the dimensionless coupling of the force carrier particle interactions is greater than electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force, both of which in turn are stronger than gravity (consider how a tiny magnet can lift a paper clip against the gravity of the entire Earth). Many theories of Beyond the Standard Model physics predict new forces, and it may turn out that all the forces are unified into a single entity at high energies.

[2] For an excellent summary of the history of quarks and some of the motivations behind the quark model, check out this fantastic documentary featuring none other than the Nobel Prize wining physicists, Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann themselves.

[3] Particles are discovered by the bumps or resonances they leave in the statistical distributions of particle decays/scattering events. See for example, one of the excesses of events that led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson.


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