The Slow Pace Of Big Science | Vol. 3 / No. 19.4

Because photos of the LHCb are hard to find | Photo: CERN, CC BY-SA 3.0
Because photos of the LHCb are hard to find | Photo: CERN, CC BY-SA 3.0


Big announcements in the world of science aren’t very common, and when they are, it’s because someone came up with a massive prediction that no-one outside of a select scientific community were even aware of for decades (or more).

The Large Hadron Collider discovering the Higgs Boson? That was predicted in 1964. The LHC took decades to prepare for, ten years to build (from 1998 to 2008) and then a further five years before the candidate particle was pretty much confirmed in 2013. I say “pretty much” because scientists are pretty sure that it’s a Higgs boson, but maybe not that it’s the confirmation of the Standard Model that would imply: “It remains an open question, however, whether this is the Higgs boson of the Standard Model of particle physics, or possibly the lightest of several bosons predicted in some theories that go beyond the Standard Model. Finding the answer to this question will take time.

The discovery of gravitational waves? Einstein predicted that back in 1916, and it took until this year — one hundred years later! — for scientists at aLIGO to say “yeah, we’re pretty sure these things exist, see? We have data (finally).” (I’m paraphrasing).

I write all this because the bright sparks at the LHC may have discovered something that will require changes to the Standard Model. We already know that something is wrong with the Standard Model, since it doesn’t do a great job with things like gravity or dark matter (at least, not in the way we currently understand the Standard Model… which is almost the same thing).

The LHC scientists have been looking at the decay of B mesons, which should decay at a certain rate, and fire their products off at certain angles. Last year, they noticed that the decay rate didn’t seem to be right, and this year they noticed that the angles seem off as well. Bear in mind also that the data they’re looking at is from 2011 and 2012. Hard science is slow, remember? 

So right now, they’re only at a 3.4 sigma level of certainty about their results. Long story short, that means that if they were to run the same experiment daily for, well, 3.5 sigma would be about six years, then you could expect this result to pop up once purely by chance. Three sigma means you’re about 99.7% sure you’ve found something real. The gold standard for the LHC folks is 5 sigma, which means that if you run the same experiment once a day for 4776 years (basically all of recorded history) you’d get the result once by chance.

All this is to say that we might need to at the least tweak the Standard Model in the coming years. The paper, published last month in the Journal of High Energy Physics, says that “these differences [in angle and decay rate] could be explained by contributions from physics beyond the Standard Model, or by an unexpectedly large hadronic effect that is not accounted for in the Standard Model predictions,” which might mean there are heavier Higgs bosons yet to be found, or it might mean something completely unexpected.

But if you’re dying to know what it means right now, I’m sorry but you’re out of luck. Big discoveries, as I’m trying to tell you, take a long time. So for this one, you’re just going to have to wait. In the meantime, the LHCb (LHC beauty) team, the folks responsible for the latest results, have a blog, which mostly just goes over my head.


Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.