Fermilab physicists may have discovered a ‘new force of nature’

tevatron-fermilabPhysicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory announced this week that they have discovered what they believe to be a new elementary particle that could, some say, turn out to be an entirely “new force of nature,” The New York Times reports.

A “suspicious” deviation in the Fermilab team’s test results reveals what some believe is a version of the elusive Higgs boson particle, which could be “responsible for endowing other elementary particles with mass,” writes Dennis Overbye in the Times. An alternative explanation is that the “mysterious bump” in test data could be evidence of a new force of nature that fits in the same category as gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces.

“Nobody knows what this is,” Fermilab theorist Christopher Hill, who was not part of the particle discovery team, tells the Times. “If it is real, it would be the most significant discovery in physics in half a century.”

In fact, all experts seem to agree that, “if the evidence holds up,” this will be a extraordinary discovery. Whether or not it does withstand the stress of additional tests, however, remains to be seen.

The evidence so far amounts to about 250 separate instances in which scientists observed the physical anomaly. That equals roughly one quarter of 1 percent of all results — a statistical fluctuation with a high enough recurrence rate that scientists consider it a “three-sigma” result, which means it’s valid enough to signal a possible discovery, but not yet verified enough to declare full scientific victory.

The potentially groundbreaking discovery was made during tests using the Tevatron circular particle accelerator, located near Batavia, IL, which was once the world’s largest. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) took that title in 2010. Because of the LHC, however, the Tevatron has been rendered obsolete, and is scheduled to shut down in September due to lack of funding. Verifying the existence of this new particle/force could be the Tevatron’s final act.