A possibly exciting bump and other stories

A plethora of interesting science news hit the newspapers and the blogosphere this week. As far as I know, these (mainly astronomy- and physics-related) stories have not yet been picked up by any Nature Network blog. As one of the few physical scientists in this house, I felt I should step up to the challenge. Here’s the gist of it, in chronological order. [Post-writing note: sorry, it was supposed to be a summary. I got excited, particularly with the first story.]

1. The bump that could be something more—-Tuesday, 5th of April

Tevatron, Fermilab’s particle accelerator that will be shut down for good in September, seems to be exhaling one last breath of new physics. If recent results hold up, that is.

Physicists are cautiously excited about what could be a hint of a new elementary particle. The data collected from the accelerator located in Batavia, Illinois (US), shows an intriguing bump, one that cannot be explained by current particle physics models.

The Tevatron works by colliding protons with antiprotons. The former are particles that exist in the nuclei of atoms and the latter are their corresponding antiparticles (same mass but opposite electric charge). While protons are all around and within us, antiprotons are somewhat more exotic as they are only created in certain reactions. At Fermilab, they are specifically produced to be used at the Tevatron.

When antiprotons crash with protons, they annihilate each other producing other particles. What exactly flies off this collision depends on how violent it is; the more energy you put into it, the more debris you are likely to see. What the Tevatron is doing at the moment is crashing particles with an energy of almost 2 TeV. 1 TeV is roughly the energy of motion of a flying mosquito. While this may not seem that impressive, remember that particle accelerators are compressing this energy into a very small space. Protons and antiprotons are a million million times smaller than a mosquito.

In the case of the experiment in question, the collision produced a known particle, called W boson, and a pair of jets. These jets are basically the signatures of other particles that are spewed from the collision. It is the data associated with them that scientists analyze when they are looking for interesting stuff. And this time they saw an unexpected bump.


The sort of plots physicists use to show their results (one is pictured above) are best explained by Flip Tanedo over at his US/LHC blog. He writes:

On the horizontal axis is the invariant mass of the two jets, which is roughly the sum of the jet energies. The vertical axis is the number of events in the data set with the given invariant mass. If there were a particle which produced the two jets, then there should be a bump in the number of events with an invariant mass around the mass of the new particle.

In the image above, taken from the yet-to-be-reviewed paper announcing this ‘discovery’, the contributions from most known particles (the ‘background’) have been subtracted. The authors left only the experimental data (the black dots with vertical lines) corresponding to WW and WZ production (W and Z being bosons, red) and the new bump (blue). As explained by Flip Tanedo, that new bump could well be a new particle.

Physicists at Fermilab are not yet opening champagne bottles because there’s a (tiny) possibility this bump is an artifact of the statistical treatment done to the data. There is a tenth of a percent chance it isn’t real. While this number is small enough to convince the common of mortals, scientists require the uncertainty to be about one in a million to formalize a discovery.

For now, only one thing is certain. It’s not the ordinary Higgs boson, the hypothetical, much sought-after particle predicted to exist by standard particle physics models. Theoreticians know this baby well enough to know that it would produce a much smaller bump at that energy than what the data is showing.

To see if the results hold up Fermilab’s scientists have to examine a lot more data. Luckily, even if Tevatron had to stop tomorrow, there would still be four times the amount of data analyzed so far available for physicists to play with. Protons and antiprotons have already been smashed; scientists just need to look at all the debris the collisions left.

What they’ve seen so far looks promising, but there’s still a lot to check up on.

2. Lord Rees, theoretical astrophysicist, accepted a £1m prize awarded by the Templeton Foundation—-Wednesday, 6th of April

The news is not that the British astronomer Martin Rees won the annual Templeton prize, the largest award given to an individual. The news is that he accepted it.

As explained in the Templeton prize website, the award “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Rees won because of the ‘Big Questions’ about the physical and metaphysical universe (to use the parlance of my previous post) he raises through his work. How large is physical reality? What is the nature of the Big Bang? are examples. Questions that “are reshaping crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life,” to quote from the Foundation’s press release on the 2011 prize.

The key word here is “theological.” Some, including Richard Dawkins and Sean Carroll, claim that behind the seemingly innocuous wording of the Templeton Foundation is an intent to award those that are willing to state that religion is compatible with science. Biologist Jerry Coyne, writing in his Guardian blog, puts it clearly: “The Templeton Prize, which once went to people like Mother Teresa and the Reverend Billy Graham, now goes to scientists who are either religious themselves or say nice things about religion.”

The fact that such a distinguished researcher and nonbeliever such as Martin Rees has accepted this prize is getting on the nerves of some (mainly atheist) scientists. (Although the ‘rage’ is directed more at the Foundation, following their reaction to Rees’ acceptance, than at the astronomer himself.) Sean Carroll, for example, claims it is all part of a big publicity move on part of the Templeton Foundation. He quotes the “money paragraph” from a Guardian opinion piece written by Mark Vernon, a former Templeton fellow, to justify his claim:

But with Rees’s acceptance, the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment. That such a highly regarded figure has received its premier prize will make it that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.

It remains to be seen whether the “scientific establishment” will indeed welcome Templeton’s “substantial resources.” At the very least, Rees’s acceptance has served to reignite the discussion regarding the true aims of the Foundation.

3. NASA (may or may not have) killed LISA—-Wednesday, 6th of April

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) was designed to detect and measure gravitational waves from cosmic sources. These undulations in the space-time fabric that permeates the Universe are predict by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, but they have yet to be discovered. As described in the mission’s website, LISA “will give us insight into a broad range of unanswered science questions,” from the “birth and history of galaxies and massive black holes” to “possibly new physics characteristic of the early Universe.” Undoubtedly an important space mission.

Now, I was going to report NASA gave up on this mission (there’s no money), after having read about over at Discover Blogs. But having done a bit more research on it, I have only found two blogs and no newspapers reporting this. The origin of the story seems to be Steinn Sigurosson’s Cat Dynamics at ScienceBlogs. The sources are trustworthy. But given that no major news platform has picked up on this, I’ll be cautious and leave you only with the rumor.

[Update 1: sadly, it is definitely true. I might write a longer post about LISA once more details are known. Until then, check the sites I’ve linked to if you’d like a bit more information than I’ve given here. Thanks to Caltech’s David Tsang for the inside knowledge on this.]

[Update 2: the word is out now. Check out Nature’s news team cover on this story, or Jennifer Ouellette’s over at Discovery News.]

4. “The hunt for future science writers is on”—-Thursday, 7th of April

Last but not the least. UK’s Wellcome Trust joined forces with the Guardian and The Observer to find talented, budding science writers. The winners (one from each category) of this science writing competition will receive a £1,000 cash prize and the top 30 shortlisted will be invited to a science writing workshop at the Guardian offices. The prize’s official announcement can be found here, with more details on the Wellcome Trust website. Note that you must be a non-published writer to apply, that is, professional journalists or authors who already write for money are excluded (bloggers and student journalists are welcome). Also, and this is what prevents me from applying, you must be based in the UK or Republic of Ireland.


6 thoughts on “A possibly exciting bump and other stories

  1. Laura Wheeler

    Thanks for a great summary of the exciting events occurring this week.  I am not sure if you have had a look at this blog post on NPGs staff blog The Great Beyond Blog: Tevatron claims possible glimpse of particles beyond the standard model. Is it me of the fact that there is a tenth of a percent chance that the results aren’t real, seems to be convincing! It’s somewhat ironic that just as Tevatron enters its final months of operations, that they are starting (we hope) to discover new physics.
    Now onto Martin Rees, have you read Ian Sample’s transcript of the his interview with Martin on the Tuesday before the announcement that he had won the Templeton Prize?  Awkward is just one word used to describe this!  
    Finally Barbara, what a shame you can’t enter the Wellcome Trust competition!! We need to find a similar competition for you to enter (are you based in Portugal?)


  2. Barbara Ferreira

    Re: Tevatron (thanks for the link, I hadn’t seen NPG’s cover on the topic): I am also convinced that a tenth of a percent is small enough. But it has happened before that results with a similar certainty turned out to be a fluke. Hence the cautious optimism.
    As for Martin Rees, I have read that transcript. Clearly he didn’t want to be talking about his own views on religion. Very awkward indeed.
    I am based in Portugal for about another week now. I’m starting a science communication internship at the European Southern Observatory’s outreach department, based near Munich, on the 18th of April. Moving to Germany on Friday!


  3. Laura Wheeler

    I like the cautious optimism! I guess we shall wait and see what happens.  I assume the closure will still take place, even if these results prove to be real? Congratulations on your science internship! Moving to Germany wow! Will you be keeping us updated on your tip there? How long is it for? We shall have to keep an eye out then for other science writing competitions that you would be eligible for.


  4. Barbara Ferreira

    Thanks! Hopefully, I will keep having time to update this blog on a weekly basis. It’s for 3 to 6 months, but given that I’m starting a masters at NYU in September, it’s unlikely I’ll be in Germany past July.


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