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Science

Particle Physics: Is the Standard Model Wrong?

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During my last term in college, I took a class in nuclear and particle physics. Particle physics is one of the fields of study I hope to get in to, so I knew going in that the class would be interesting. The course was what you would expect for a course on nuclear and particle physics: how nuclear reactors work, how accelerators work, and the sea of particles that make up everything. There was one constant through it all: the Standard Model.

For those that don’t know, the Standard Model is the Periodic Table of Physics, and it is the reigning description of how the universe works on subatomic scales. It is basically a listing of everything physicists perceive to be true based on all observations of the natural world including all fundamental particles, forces, and their relationships. Just about every modern theory and law is based on it, including those that power the computer that you are using to read this article. There are a few loose ends, but it is very robust and difficult to break. This is why any claim that does so is immediately held suspect, but every physicist would celebrate like it is the Fourth of July even if just one new theory does break it.

Fast forward a year later, there is a lot of activities going on in particle physics these days concerning the Standard model. Two seemingly contradictory announcements have been made this past year. First, there seems to be evidence for the existence of the higgs boson, the granddaddy of all particles in the universe whose existence would prove the Standard Model. Then, there seems to be strong evidence that the Standard Model may be wrong.

First up is the higgs. A recent announcement from the CERN accelerator facility in France has the physics world is an uproar. Rumors have it that those crazy scientists at CERN found evidence for the higgs boson particle where the Standard Model says it should be. CERN itself has not made an announcement yet, but this is big news. Since the Standard Model and all physics based on it depend on the existence of the higgs, actually having the higgs to actually exist would confirm the last few decade of research in one night. There would be partying for sure. However, we must remain calm and professional. This could be just a false alarm. There have been rumors before which turned out to be bugs in the system. We have to wait for the July meeting of the world’s particle physicists to receive word if the signal CERN found was indeed the elusive higgs.

The second big announcement was word of evidence that the Standard Model contains many errors. There are maybe only a few ways to completely break the Standard Model, but that does not mean it is bulletproof, and this bullet came out of the BaBar Experiment.

The BaBar experiment is a high-energy physics experiment based at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory that collects particle collision data from 1999 to 2008, and was designed to explore various mysteries of particle physics, including why the universe contains matter, but no antimatter. Most of the experiment is nothing to write about (yet). It is all important news to physicists, but no one else.

However, a recent analysis of the data revealed that a particular type of particle decay (“B to D-star-tau-nu”) happens more often than it should under the Standard Model. The Standard Model maybe good, but it doesn’t explain everything. Thus, this new finding is worth looking in to, even though the level of certainty is not large enough to actually break the Standard Model completely.

Now, both of these results still need to be confirmed, but even if they are both true and the Standard Model is both correct but needs revising, most people will not see anything different. The sun will still rise tomorrow. You will still be able to play Minecraft on your computer. All this does is give physicists more work.

If both are true, we would have a much better grasp at understanding what we know and what we don’t know as many of these theories would have to go back to the drawing board. There would definitely be new physics and that is always a good thing. It would be this new physics that would offer the greatest impact to our lives, leading to new technologies and a better understanding of the universe we live in. It would be this new physics that I and every other physicist would be working on for the rest of our lives.


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