A handful of measurements of decaying particles has seemed slightly off-kilter for years, intriguing physicists. Now a new decay measurement at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva has amplified that interest into tentative enthusiasm, with theoretical physicists proposing that weird new particles could explain the results. Scientists with the LHCb experiment reported the new result on April 18 in a seminar at the European particle physics lab CERN, which hosts the LHC.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” says theoretical physicist Benjamin Grinstein of the University of California, San Diego. The new measurement is “a further hint that there’s something new and unexpected happening in very fundamental interactions.”
Other physicists, however, are more cautious, betting that the series of hints will not lead to a new discovery. “One should always remain suspicious of an effect that does not show up in a clear way” in any individual measurement, Carlos Wagner of the University of Chicago wrote in an e-mail.
Taken in isolation, none of the measurements rise beyond the level that can be explained by a statistical fluctuation, meaning that the discrepancies could easily disappear with more data. But, says theoretical physicist David London of the University of Montreal, there are multiple independent hints, “and they all seem to be pointing at something.”
The measurements all involve a class of particle called a B meson, which can be produced when protons are smashed together in the LHC. When a B meson decays, it can produce a type of particle called a kaon that is accompanied either by…
Nuclear physicist Evangeline Downie hadn’t planned to study one of the thorniest puzzles of the proton.
But when opportunity knocked, Downie couldn’t say no. “It’s the proton,” she exclaims. The mysteries that still swirl around this jewel of the subatomic realm were too tantalizing to resist. The plentiful particles make up much of the visible matter in the universe. “We’re made of them, and we don’t understand them fully,” she says.
Many physicists delving deep into the heart of matter in recent decades have been lured to the more exotic and unfamiliar subatomic particles: mesons, neutrinos and the famous Higgs boson — not the humble proton.
Three proton conundrums have scientists designing new experiments. Agreement eludes researchers on proton size, spin and stability.
Current status: Two kinds of measurements of the proton’s radius disagree.
Why do we care? Testing theories of how particles interact requires a precise radius measurement. If the discrepancy persists, it may mean that new, undiscovered particles exist.
Current status: Scientists can’t account for the sources of the proton’s known spin.
Why do we care? Understanding the spin would satisfy fundamental scientific curiosity about how the proton works.
Current status: Despite decades of searching, no one has ever seen a proton decay
Why do we care? Proton decay would be a sign that three of nature’s forces — weak, strong and electromagnetic — were united early in the universe.
But rather than chasing the rarest of the rare, scientists like Downie are painstakingly scrutinizing the proton itself with ever-higher precision. In the process, some of these proton enthusiasts have stumbled upon problems in areas of physics that scientists thought they had figured out.
Surprisingly, some of the particle’s most basic characteristics are not fully pinned down. The latest measurements of its radius disagree with one another by a wide margin, for example, a fact that captivated Downie. Likewise, scientists can’t yet explain the source of the proton’s spin, a basic quantum property. And some physicists have a deep but unconfirmed suspicion that the seemingly eternal particles don’t live forever — protons may decay. Such a decay is predicted by theories that unite disparate forces of nature under one grand umbrella. But decay has not yet been witnessed.
Like the base of a pyramid, the physics of the proton serves as a foundation for much of what scientists know about the behavior of matter. To understand the intricacies of the universe, says Downie, of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., “we have to start with, in a sense, the simplest system.”
Sizing things up
For most of the universe’s history, protons have been VIPs — very important particles. They formed just millionths of a second after the Big Bang, once the cosmos cooled enough for the positively charged particles to take shape. But protons didn’t step into the spotlight until about 100 years ago, when Ernest Rutherford bombarded nitrogen with radioactively produced particles, breaking up the nuclei and releasing protons.
A single proton in concert with a single electron makes up hydrogen — the most plentiful element in the universe. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of every atom. Each element has a unique number of protons, signified by an element’s atomic number. In the core of the sun, fusing protons generate heat and light needed for life to flourish. Lone protons are also found as cosmic rays, whizzing through space at breakneck speeds, colliding with Earth’s atmosphere and producing showers of other particles, such as electrons, muons and neutrinos.
In short, protons are everywhere. Even minor tweaks to scientists’ understanding of the minuscule particle, therefore, could have far-reaching implications. So any nagging questions, however small in scale, can get proton researchers riled up.
A disagreement of a few percent in measurements of the proton’s radius has attracted intense interest, for example. Until several years ago, scientists agreed: The proton’s radius was about 0.88 femtometers, or 0.88 millionths of a billionth of a meter — about a trillionth the width of a poppy seed.
Protons make up a large part of the universe’s visible matter and play an essential role in atomic nuclei. But the building block is still revealing surprises.
Protons have two “up” quarks and one “down” quark. Neutrons have two downs and one up.
But protons and neutrons contain much more. Quark-antiquark pairs constantly form and annihilate around the three persistent quarks. Gluons (yellow) hold the quarks together via the strong nuclear force. Quarks have a property called “color charge” — shown here as red, green and blue — which is related to the strong force.
But that neat picture was upended in the span of a few hours, in May 2010, at the Precision Physics of Simple Atomic Systems conference in Les Houches, France. Two teams of scientists presented new, more precise measurements, unveiling what they thought would be the definitive size of the proton. Instead the figures disagreed by about 4 percent (SN: 7/31/10, p. 7). “We both expected that we would get the same number, so we were both surprised,” says physicist Jan Bernauer of MIT.
By itself, a slight revision of the proton’s radius wouldn’t upend physics. But despite extensive efforts, the groups can’t explain why they get different numbers. As researchers have eliminated simple explanations for the impasse, they’ve begun wondering if the mismatch could be the first hint of a breakdown that could shatter accepted tenets of physics.
The two groups each used different methods to size up the proton. In an experiment at the MAMI particle accelerator in Mainz, Germany, Bernauer and colleagues estimated the proton’s girth by measuring how much electrons’ trajectories were deflected when fired at protons. That test found the expected radius of about 0.88 femtometers (SN Online: 12/17/10).
But a team led by physicist Randolf Pohl of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, used a new, more precise method. The researchers created muonic hydrogen, a proton that is accompanied not by an electron but by a heftier cousin — a muon.
In an experiment at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland, Pohl and collaborators used lasers to bump the muons to higher energy levels. The amount of energy required depends on the size of the proton. Because the more massive muon hugs closer to the proton than electrons do, the energy levels of muonic hydrogen are more sensitive to the proton’s size than ordinary hydrogen, allowing for measurements 10 times as precise as electron-scattering measurements.
Pohl’s results suggested a smaller proton radius, about 0.841 femtometers, a stark difference from the other measurement. Follow-up measurements of muonic deuterium — which has a proton and a neutron in its nucleus — also revealed a smaller than expected size, he and collaborators reported last year in Science. Physicists have racked their brains to explain why the two measurements don’t agree. Experimental error could be to blame, but no one can pinpoint its source. And the theoretical physics used to calculate the radius from the experimental data seems solid.
Now, more outlandish possibilities are being tossed around. An unexpected new particle that interacts with muons but not electrons could explain the difference (SN: 2/23/13, p. 8). That would be revolutionary: Physicists believe that electrons and muons should behave identically in particle interactions. “It’s a very sacred principle in theoretical physics,” says John Negele, a theoretical particle physicist at MIT. “If there’s unambiguous evidence that it’s been broken, that’s really a fundamental discovery.”
But established physics theories die hard. Shaking the foundations of physics, Pohl says, is “what I dream of, but I think that’s not going to happen.” Instead, he suspects, the discrepancy is more likely to be explained through minor tweaks to the experiments or the theory.
The alluring mystery of the proton radius reeled Downie in. During conversations in the lab with some fellow physicists, she learned of an upcoming experiment that could help settle the issue. The experiment’s founders were looking for collaborators, and Downie leaped on the bandwagon. The Muon Proton Scattering Experiment, or MUSE, to take place at the Paul Scherrer Institute beginning in 2018, will scatter both electrons and muons off of protons and compare the results. It offers a way to test whether the two particles behave differently, says Downie, who is now a spokesperson for MUSE.
A host of other experiments are in progress or planning stages. Scientists with the Proton Radius Experiment, or PRad, located at Jefferson Lab in Newport News, Va., hope to improve on Bernauer and colleagues’ electron-scattering measurements. PRad researchers are analyzing their data and should have a new number for the proton radius soon.
But for now, the proton’s identity crisis, at least regarding its size, remains. That poses problems for ultrasensitive tests of one of physicists’ most essential theories. Quantum electrodynamics, or QED, the theory that unites quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, describes the physics of electromagnetism on small scales. Using this theory, scientists can calculate the properties of quantum systems, such as hydrogen atoms, in exquisite detail — and so far the predictions match reality. But such calculations require some input — including the proton’s radius. Therefore, to subject the theory to even more stringent tests, gauging the proton’s size is a must-do task.