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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Physicists May Have Found New Fundamental Particle Of Nature

This file picture taken on March 22, 2007 shows a woman walking near the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet (CMS), at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)'s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

This file picture from March 22, 2007 shows a woman walking near the world’s largest superconducting solenoid magnet, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)’s Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator in Geneva. Physicists working with the collider believe they may have found a new fundamental particle of nature. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – may have found a new fundamental particle of nature. The scientists say that it’s still too soon to know for sure, but that isn’t stopping the excitement and intrigue.

Kyle Cranmer, a physicist on one of the teams at CERN that’s doing this research, speaks with Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about what the scientists have seen that has led them to believe they may have found a new particle, and what the discovery could mean, if it’s real.

Interview Highlights: Kyle Cranmer

On the possible new discovery

“It’s definitely way too soon to say we’ve discovered something new, but we have seen what some people are calling a ‘tantalizing hint’ of something new. And it certainly caught everyone’s eye yesterday. And if it is new, we don’t know what it is yet. One of the scenarios that people are considering is that it is really a cousin of the Higgs boson. There are other theories that say that maybe it’s a particle related to gravity. I think there are a lot of options of what it could be. At this stage, it’s way too early to know, but the important thing is that, whatever it is, if it’s real, it’s new and it would be a huge discovery in our field, in many ways even more important than the discovery of the Higgs boson, so if this is real, it’s a game-changer for our field.”

A game-changer in what way?

“This is really opening a new chapter in our understanding of fundamental physics and what the universe is made out of and how it works.”

“So the discovery of the Higgs was fantastic and solved a decades-old riddle and sort of our understanding of how the universe works. But in some sense, it was a very conventional solution to this problem and many people were expecting that we would eventually discover this particle. So finding it was important, but it was also kind of once we found it, everyone knew what it meant. But with the discovery of the Higgs, we really completed this theory we called the ‘Standard Model’ and it’s a complete theory and it doesn’t give any guidance of what would happen next. And so seeing something next is, you know, the first big hint. So this is really opening a new chapter in our understanding of fundamental physics and what the universe is made out of and how it works.”

What would happen next?

“I guess the main point is that we have a very small collection of fundamental particles that we think everything is made out of and the Higgs boson was the very last one of this theory that we call the Standard Model. And so it was important to find, confirm that theory and that was successful and it’s a huge triumph. But people hope that that’s not the end of the story and that it turns out that the Higgs sort of has its own set of problems and doesn’t, for instance, the Standard Model doesn’t explain what dark matter is. So we have a lot of mysteries that we need to address, but we don’t know what the solutions to those problems are. And so when we do these experiments, we’re looking for some hint, some deeper picture as to what the rules of the game are for the universe and what everything’s made out of, and this would be the first big hint in that direction.”

How do you figure out that this tiny, tiny particle is so important?

“We smash together some particles and we look at the debris that flies out.”

“These are very, very tiny. I mean they’re even smaller than the nucleus of an atom. So there’s nothing that you can see directly, but you can think of these experiments that we do at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider is essentially like gigantic microscopes so they’re probing these very, very small distance scales. And what happens, and you know, in more physical pictures is we smash together some particles and we look at the debris that flies out. And what we saw in these collisions were that we had two particles of light called photons that are flying out, and if you add up their energies in a certain way, we’re starting to always get back the same answer and when we look at our data we start to see a little bit of a bump. And that bump is sort of the sign that maybe we’re making a new particle that we didn’t know about before.”

Where do you go from here?

“We will continue taking data. I mean, what happened after the Higgs discovery is that we upgraded the accelerator so it has quite a bit more energy than it had before. And we collected some data and that’s what yesterday’s announcements were about, was a whole slew of different results from the first data at this second run of the Large Hadron Collider. And that will continue next year. And so hopefully, by this time next year, this issue will probably be settled so maybe even by the summer we might know.”

And if it is settled, does it change our lives at all?

“Fundamental research bares fruit and you don’t really know how it’s going to play out.”

“That’s a great question. I mean these things are always very hard to know what’s going to happen. There’s been an enormous amount of spin-offs and technical developments that influence our lives. You know, the most famous thing was the invention of the World Wide Web that happened at CERN, a physicist could help share information, but it includes things like cryogenics and, you know, computing, all sorts of things that our research has spin-off effects. The direct application of the research is always more difficult to tell, but we got things like lasers and transistors out of quantum mechanics. So it’s very hard to predict, but, you know, the hope is that these things might eventually have some sort of impact on our daily lives. But it’s very hard to know at this point in time. But fundamental research bears fruit and you don’t really know how it’s going to play out.”

Guest


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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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