A “bump” in the data generated at Fermilab has the physics world buzzing. The following is in the New York Times today:
“Nobody knows what this is,” said Christopher Hill, a theorist at Fermilab who was not part of the team. “If it is real, it would be the most significant discovery in physics in half a century.”
There are four possibilities. Physicists have discovered:
- a new force of nature (!);
- the Higgs Boson;
- something not understood about regular physics; or
- a statistical anomaly.
Of these, according to the New York Times, one Fermilab physicist pretty much rules out the possibility that the Higgs particle has been discovered:
This could not be the Standard Model Higgs, Dr. Punzi and his colleagues concluded, because the Higgs is predicted to decay into much heavier particles, namely quarks. Moreover, the rate at which these mystery particles were being produced was 300 times greater than Higgs bosons would be produced.
If real, it was something totally new, Dr. Punzi said. The result had recently been strengthened, he said, by new calculations of interactions between quarks, which are notoriously difficult to compute. “It is so new, so astonishing, we ourselves can barely believe it,” he said. “We decided we had to let the whole world know.”
How about an anomaly? How likely is that? Not high, but certainly possible:
The experimenters estimate that there is a less than a quarter of 1 percent chance their bump is a statistical fluctuation, making it what physicists call a three-sigma result, enough to attract attention but not enough to claim an actual discovery. Three-sigma bumps, as every physicist knows, can come and go.
So it’s perhaps 1 chance in 400 that the findings are an anomaly. The physicists will need to do more searching. But that leaves us with two intriguing (even likely) possibilities:
- a new force of nature has been found; or
- something not understood about regular physics has been stumbled upon.
In either case, the discovery could upend our conceptual (and, conceivably, our technological and spiritual) lives.
We don’t really know who we are, where we are, or what we are, do we?
These are good times for being an agnostic.