The holy grail of every particle physics experiment is the discovery of a new particle. Finding a new constituent of matter may earn you eternal glory within the history of physics. Unfortunately, since the last missing piece of the Standard Model, the Higgs boson, was discovered in 2012, and with still no clue about the nature of dark matter and dark energy, there is not much hope to stumble upon a new fundamental building block of matter any time soon.
Over the years, humans have come up with four forces that can be used to describe every single interaction in the physical world. They are gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force that causes particle decay, and the strong nuclear force that binds quarks into atoms. Together, these have become the standard model of particle physics. But the existence of dark matter makes this model seem incomplete. Surely there must be another force (or forces) that explain both its existence and the reason for its darkness.
Hungarian scientists from the Atomki Nuclear Research Institute led by Professor Attila Krasznahorkay believe they have found evidence of a fifth force of nature. While monitoring an excited helium atom’s decay, they observed it emitting light, which is not unusual. What is unusual is that the particles split at a precise angle of 115 degrees, as though they were knocked off course by an invisible force.
The scientists dubbed this particle X17, because they calculated its mass at 17 megaelectronvolts (MeV). One electron Volt describes the kinetic energy gained by a single electron as it moves from zero volts to a potential of one volt, and so a megaelectronvolt is equal to the energy gained when an electron moves from zero volts to one million volts.
What Are Those First Four, Again?
Let’s start with the easy one, gravity. It gives objects weight, and keeps things more or less glued in place on Earth. Though gravity is a relatively weak force, it dominates on a large scale and holds entire galaxies together. Gravity helps us work and have fun. Without gravity, there would be no water towers, hydroelectric power plants, or roller coasters.
The electromagnetic force is a two-headed beast that dominates at the human scale. Almost everything we are and do is underpinned by this force that surrounds us like an ethereal soup. Electricity and magnetism are considered a dual force because they work on the same principle — that opposite forces attract and like forces repel.
This force holds atoms together and makes electronics possible. It’s also responsible for visible light itself. Each fundamental force has a carrier particle, and for electromagnetism, that particle is the photon. What we think of as visible light is the result of photons carrying electrostatic force between electrons and protons.
The weak and strong nuclear forces aren’t as easy to grasp because they operate at the subatomic level. The weak nuclear force is responsible for beta decay, where a neutron can turn into a proton plus an electron and anti-neutrino, which is one type of radioactive decay. Weak interactions explain how particles can change by changing the quarks inside them.
The strong nuclear force is the strongest force in nature, but it only dominates at the atomic scale. Imagine a nucleus with multiple protons. All those protons are positively charged, so why don’t they repel each other and rip the nucleus apart? The strong nuclear force is about 130x stronger than the electromagnetic force, so when protons are close enough together, it will dominate. The strong nuclear force holds both the nucleus together as well as the nucleons themselves.
The Force of Change
Suspicion of a fifth force has been around for a while. Atomki researchers observed a similar effect in 2015 when they studied the light emitted during the decay of a beryllium-8 isotope. As it decayed, the constituent electrons and positrons consistently repelled each other at another strange angle — exactly 140 degrees. They dubbed it a “protophobic” force, as in a force that’s afraid of protons. Labs around the world made repeated attempts to prove the discovery a fluke or a mistake, but they all produced the same results as Atomki.
Professor Attila Krasznahorkay and his team published their observations in late October, though the paper has yet to be peer-reviewed. Now, the plan at Atomki is to observe other atoms’ decay. If they can find a third atom that exhibits this strange behavior, we may have to take the standard model back to the drawing board to accommodate this development.
So what happens if science concludes that the X17 particle is evidence of a fifth force of nature? We don’t really know for sure. It might offer clues into dark matter, and it might bring us closer to a unified field theory. We’re at the edge of known science here, so feel free to speculate wildly in the comments.