Tantalizing Data From the LHC Has Physicists Psyched

Particle Collision in LHC (Large Hadron Collider)

Particle Collision in LHC (Large Hadron Collider)

Photo Credit Geaty
By Sarah Scoles

LATE LAST YEAR, two different instruments at the massive, subatomic particle-smashing Large Hadron Collider saw … something. No one knows what the so-called bump in the data was—it came from pairs of photons crashing into the detectors at the same time, with the same energy. Working backward from those kinds of crashes, physicists can infer things about the death and decay of larger particles. Usually.

This time, that wasn’t so easy. The new “di-photon excess”—unpredicted and unexpected—could point to a particle four times heavier than the next-heaviest particle, the top quark, and six times heavier than the famous Higgs boson. It could suggest the existence of a heavier relative of the Higgs, or maybe a graviton—the still-theoretical particle that conveys gravity. Or it could be something completely novel, a harbinger of new physics as yet undiscovered.

Or it could be nothing—a statistical fluke, a ghost rising out of the machine.

The LHC’s next run, in April, could provide an answer. But particle physicists turn out to be an impatient lot. As they wait for the new data, they have been working on the wiggle, posting hundreds of papers to the open-access site arXiv.org attempting to interpret this still-statistically-insignificant data. Is it a new particle? What would that mean? What would it be like?

Sure, the physicists could just wait to see whether it’s a spirit or if it has substance. But they don’t want to.
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