Forget what you may remember about atoms from your high school science class. The Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment (LHCb), one of four large experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, has announced the observation of four new types of particles which don’t fit into any known models of physics and may change the way we understand all forms of matter.
You may recall the Modern Atomic model from school. An atom is made up of a few simple parts: the proton (+) and neutron (-) make up the nucleus, or the centre of the atom, while the electrons orbit around it, much like our solar system. Did you ever wonder what makes up the protons or neutrons? Diving into the realm of particle theoretics, we are introduced to some new players in the sub-particle physics theater. Enter Quarks!
Quarks (pronounced "Kwerks") are what scientist believe to be "elementary particles," one of the basic building blocks of our entire universe. Thier discovery was a result of pioneering scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center during the late 1960s and early `70s. Protons were originally thought to have empty "soft shells," but after analysing data from the particle collisions, the team at Stanford, working alongside scientists from the Michigan Institute of Technology (MIT), noticed that some of the particles were rebounding off something else!
Another smaller, yet unknown mechanism was at play. This discovery changed the way we looked at the world, and as such, three of the leading scientists were awarded with the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of Quarks.
The conventional view regarding these "elementals" was that quarks could only exist in groups of two or three. No more, no less. Now researchers from the Syracuse team at LHCb say they have discovered something different. The newly observed tetraquarks change how we understand the basic building blocks of matter. "What we have discovered is a unique system," team member Tomasz Skwarnicki comments. "We have four exotic particles of the same type.... This discovery is already helping us distinguish between the theoretic models."
Scientists believe that before atoms, molecules, or almost anything else existed, Quarks were formed. The beginning of our known universe is believed to be a very hot and energetic. Matter itself had yet to form, and the building blocks for all we see around us took shape faster than the blink of an eye.
How fast? Quarks are said to have been formed 0.00000000001 seconds after the Big Bang, and shortly afterwards (about 0.000001 seconds later) they began to bind and form protons and neutrons. The Standard Model is the conventional understanding of this explosive time, and projects such as the LHC are using electromagnetic accelerators to try and recreate these intense conditions (on a smaller scale of course) by colliding particles with each other at near light speed, in a vacuum, and examining the results.
Researcher Thomas Britton based his PhD thesis on the analysis of the LHCb data. "The huge amount of data generated by the LHC is enabling a resurgence in searches for exotic particles and rare physical phenomena," Britton says. "There’s so many possible things for us to find and I’m happy to be a part of it."