Has a New Force of Nature Been Discovered?

There have been dramatic articles in the news media suggesting that a Nobel Prize has essentially already been awarded for the amazing discovery of a “fifth force.” I thought I’d better throw some cold water on that fire; it’s fine for it to smoulder, but we shouldn’t let it overheat.

There could certainly be as-yet unknown forces waiting to be discovered — dozens of them, perhaps.   So far, there are four well-studied forces: gravity, electricity/magnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force.  Moreover, scientists are already fully confident there is a fifth force, predicted but not yet measured, that is generated by the Higgs field. So the current story would really be about a sixth force.

Roughly speaking, any new force comes with at least one new particle.  That’s because

  • every force arises from a type of field (for instance, the electric force comes from the electromagnetic field, and the predicted Higgs force comes from the Higgs field)
  • and ripples in that type of field are a type of particle (for instance, a minimal ripple in the electromagnetic field is a photon — a particle of light — and a minimal ripple in the Higgs field is the particle known as the Higgs boson.)

The current excitement, such as it is, arises because someone claims to have evidence for a new particle, whose properties would imply a previously unknown force exists in nature.  The force itself has not been looked for, much less discovered.

The new particle, if it really exists, would have a rest mass about 34 times larger than that of an electron — about 1/50th of a proton’s rest mass. In technical terms that means its E=mc² energy is about 17 million electron volts (MeV), and that’s why physicists are referring to it as the X17.  But the question is whether the two experiments that find evidence for it are correct.

In the first experiment, whose results appeared in 2015, an experimental team mainly based in Debrecen, Hungary studied large numbers of nuclei of beryllium-8 atoms, which had been raised to an “excited state” (that is, with more energy than usual).  An excited nucleus inevitably disintegrates, and the experimenters studied the debris.  On rare occasions they observed electrons and positrons [a.k.a. anti-electrons], and these behaved in a surprising way, as though they were produced in the decay of a previously unknown particle.

In the newly reported experiment, whose results just appeared, the same team observed  the disintegration of excited nuclei of helium.  They again found evidence for what they hope is the X17, and therefore claim confirmation of their original experiments on beryllium.

When two qualitatively different experiments claim the same thing, they are less likely to be wrong, because it’s not likely that any mistakes in the two experiments would create fake evidence of the same type.  On the face of it, it does seem unlikely that both measurements, carried out on two different nuclei, could fake an X17 particle.

However, we should remain cautious, because both experiments were carried out by the same scientists. They, of course, are hoping for their Nobel Prize (which, if their experiments are correct, they will surely win) and it’s possible they could suffer from unconscious bias. It’s very common for individual scientists to see what they want to see; scientists are human, and hidden biases can lead even the best scientists astray.  Only collectively, through the process of checking, reproducing, and using each other’s work, do scientists create trustworthy knowledge.

So it is prudent to await efforts by other groups of experimenters to search for this proposed X17 particle.  If the X17 is observed by other experiments, then we’ll become confident that it’s real. But we probably won’t know until then.  I don’t currently know whether the wait will be months or a few years.

Why I am so skeptical? There are two distinct reasons.

First, there’s a conceptual, mathematical issue. It’s not easy to construct reasonable equations that allow the X17 to co-exist with all of the known types of elementary particles. That it has a smaller mass than a proton is not a problem per se.  But the X17 needs to have some unique and odd properties in order to (1)  be seen in these experiments, yet (2) not be seen in certain other previous experiments, some of which were explicitly looking for something similar.   To make equations that are consistent with these properties requires some complicated and not entirely plausible trickery.  Is it impossible? No.  But a number of the methods that scientists suggested were flawed, and the ones that remain are, to my eye, a bit contrived.

Of course, physics is an experimental science, and what theorists like me think doesn’t, in the end, matter.  If the experiments are confirmed, theorists will accept the facts and try to understand why something that seems so strange might be true.  But we’ve learned an enormous amount from mathematical thinking about nature in the last century — for instance, it was math that told us that the Higgs particle couldn’t be heavier than 1000 protons, and it was on the basis of that `advice’ that the Large Hadron Collider was built to look for it (and it found it, in 2012.) Similar math led to the discoveries of the W and Z particles roughly where they were expected. So when the math tells you the X17 story doesn’t look good, it’s not reason enough for giving up, but it is reason for some pessimism.

Second, there are many cautionary tales in experimental physics. For instance, back in 2003 there were claims of evidence of a particle called a pentaquark with a rest mass about 1.6 times a proton’s mass — an exotic particle, made from quarks and gluons, that’s both like and unlike a proton.  Its existence was confirmed by multiple experimental groups!  Others, however, didn’t see it. It took several years for the community to come to the conclusion that this pentaquark, which looked quite promising initially, did not in fact exist.

The point is that mistakes do get made in particle hunts, sometimes in multiple experiments, and it can take some time to track them down. It’s far too early to talk about Nobel Prizes.

[Note that the Higgs boson’s discovery was accepted more quickly than most.  It was discovered simultaneously by two distinct experiments using two methods each, and confirmed by additional methods and in larger data sets soon thereafter.  Furthermore,  there were already straightforward equations that happily accommodated it, so it was much more plausible than the X17.] 

And just for fun, here’s a third reason I’m skeptical. It has to do with the number 17. I mean, come on, guys, seriously — 17 million electron volts? This just isn’t auspicious.  Back when I was a student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a set of experiments, by a well-regarded experimentalist, which showed considerable evidence for an additional neutrino with a E=mc² energy of 17 thousand electron volts. Other experiments tried to find it, but couldn’t. Yet no one could find a mistake in the experimenter’s apparatus or technique, and he had good arguments that the competing experiments had their own problems. Well, after several years, the original experimenter discovered that there was a piece of his equipment which unexpectedly could absorb about 17 keV of energy, faking a neutrino signal. It was a very subtle problem, and most people didn’t fault him since no one else had thought of it either. But that was the end of the 17 keV neutrino, and with it went hundreds of research papers by both experimental and theoretical physicists, along with one scientist’s dreams of a place in history.

In short, history is cruel to most scientists who claim important discoveries, and teaches us to be skeptical and patient. If there is a fifth sixth force, we’ll know within a few years. Don’t expect to be sure anytime soon. The knowledge cycle in science runs much, much slower than the twittery news cycle, and that’s no accident; if you want to avoid serious errors that could confuse you for a long time to come, don’t rush to judgment.

26 responses to “Has a New Force of Nature Been Discovered?

  1. Great article Matt. It’s good that Physics topics like this are more prevalent in the media, but a shame that they don’t take a more cautious approach.

    Would it be possible for you to write an article on the Higgs force you describe in the article as the 5th force? I haven’t seen much about it anywehere and you seem to be the only one in the popular media talking about it.

  2. There seems to be another rather bizarre aspect to this case, which is that this group has previously claimed many other potential discoveries of bosons at different energies (albeit under a different leader): https://www.quantamagazine.org/new-boson-claim-faces-scrutiny-20160607/ .

  3. Thank you Pr Strassler for that Interesting article.
    Similarly to MKP I would would be very interested and thankful to read about the status of advancement on the Higgs field characteristics since 2012.

    Claude

  4. ” An excited nucleus inevitably disintegrates, and the experimenters studied the debris. On rare occasions they observed electrons and positrons [a.k.a. anti-electrons], and these behaved in a surprising way, as though they were produced in the decay of a previously unknown particle.”

    Such an event is likely to happen in a contaminated test area, yes/no? Even the LHC requires trillions of collisions to reach a significate sigma, Yes/no?

    I personally believe all forces are derived from one, gravity, the curvatures of space. The high forces are created due to refractions and reflections of the ripples of space.

    I would like to donate my Nobel Prize money to climate change.

  5. Fabrizio Kasto

    Good article professor, I’d be interested in your post on the fifth force.

  6. Those Hungarians are always stirring the pot.

  7. John McAllison

    I still cringe with embarrassment over the faster-than-light neutrino claims at Opera in CERN, and the discovery of gravitational waves by the Stanford BICEP2 group. Going back further, there were the 1989 cold fusion claims of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann that still resonate in the lives of crackpots today claiming there was a cover up conspiracy. However, as long as the Hungarian group remain calm and show their findings without claiming a discovery, then no long term harm done. The scientific community can still learn from it by seeing if their findings can be explained using current physical models.

    On the other hand, the news outlets have to make money via advertising and are perhaps going to spin the real picture in a direction that gets people excited enough to visit their sites.

  8. But.. pentaquarks exist right? are you just saying the 1.6xproton PQ didn’t?

    https://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/july-2015/lhc-physicists-discover-five-quark-particle

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  13. An excited nucleus inevitably disintegrates, and the experimenters studied the debris.

    Which showed considerable evidence for an additional neutrino with a E=mc² energy of 17 thousand electron volts.

    Neutrino oscillation: In high energy the “not relativistic invariant” could not condense to “relativistic invariant” to be found in expriments?

    • If we toss a coin, the probablity of getting a head may be 5 times in 1000 tosses could be consistent with mathematics we may call it stable naturalness. If head comes 50 times (a prriod of trillion trillion years), a wrong Rhythm, an almost Non-repeating pattern in Osillation – we can call it a Metastable state or unnaturalness. In high energy state, the chance of getting the head may be 51 times – a more stable Paradise or good old days, where some opioid (tobacco mind viru’s living part?) addicts or may be so called terrorists get their euphoria? – we should back to reality?
      Everything boils down to symmetry breaking of lowest possible energy where the instruments could identify as a Rest mass (relativistic invariant condensation) ?

      • Neutrinos could represent multiple worlds (new physics) as gauge invariant?
        Low energy effective theory that couples a dark scalar to Standard Model neutrinos:
        The large components are gauge invariant, while the small components are not. These small components represent spin- non-zero-mass particles. If we renormalize the large components, these gauge invariant spinors represent the polarization of neutrinos. Massive neutrinos cannot be invariant under gauge transformations.

        • It is analogous to wave functoon collapse. The particle is measured in this world, as if present in another world (new physics). To be mathematically consistent, it should be renormalized?

  14. Thank you so much Matt for your explanation! I have left physics about 6 years ago; reading your articles brings me back the good memories. Cheers, Guido

    >

  15. It would seem that the main difference between the Higgs boson and X17 is that the former served as evidence of a long proposed and mathematically supported phenomenon (the Higgs mechanism). In other words, there was already a well established basis for its existence. Stumbling upon something that appears to be evidence, but without any prior theoretical justification, is like putting the wagon before the horse. Like Matt’s example of a “new neutrino”, it seems a bit dodgy and should be proceeded with a healthy dose of skepticism.

  16. Speaking of forces, would it be possible for you to do a write up on what the (electro)weak and Higgs forces would look like if their corresponding bosons had masses low enough for them to have ranges on macroscopic scales (in other words, if they were long ranged enough to behave as classical forces), and what the strong force would look like if the confinement scale were macroscopic? I’m thinking both in terms of what the field and radio frequency waves within the field would look like (e.g, how does a charged W or gluon affect the picture we’re used to with classical electromagnetism, in terms of how field lines are arranged, how waves behave, etc.) and in terms of optics (if, in such a scenario, our eyes picked up electroweak bosons or gluons or Higgses, how would the world look to us, assuming that the new physics still allowed for structures vaguely equivalent to eyes and brains?).

    I have similar questions about fermionic fields. Can one have a classical(ish) field that behaves in a fermionic way? Can we formulate the muon field in terms of “muonelectric” and “muonmagnetic” field lines (I’d ask that question in terms of the electron, but it would cause obvious linguistic difficulties)? If so, how would it compare to the familiar electromagnetic case?

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  18. Excellent write-up Matt.

  19. martenvandijk

    “Power is what power does”(John Kenneth Galbraith).