Glimpse of a new force of nature at Fermilab

Scientists say they have evidence of a hitherto unknown particle that could open up new fields of physics.

April 6, 2011

By Gabriel Spitzer

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(Courtesy of Fermilab)
CDF's giant particle detector inside the Tevatron found hints of "new physics."

Scientists at west suburban Fermilab are abuzz today about a tiny hiccup in some experimental data. It could be nothing, or it could be a new force of nature.

The results come from the lab’s Tevatron collider – due to shut down this year for lack of funding. When particles crash into each other inside the Tevatron, they produce a spray of other particles. Now scientists are seeing pieces of subatomic shrapnel that don’t make sense, unless there’s a brand-new mystery particle there. 

If so, it could be “new physics” – a basic change in the standard model of what makes up the universe.

“So if this really holds up, this would be part of a family of new things that should reveal us the layer of physics beyond what we know today,” said Giovanni Punzi, a spokesman for the CDF collaboration, which published the results. “So that’s why everybody’s so excited.”

The results could be evidence of a new fundamental force, joining gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

There’s still a quarter-percent possibility it’s just a statistical glitch, which leaves these results far short of what physicists consider a true discovery. The researchers expect to have a good deal more data by the time Tevatron shuts down, likely this fall. In any case, the more powerful Large Hadron Collider in Europe should be able to nail down the new particle, if it exists, with direction from the Fermilab research.