A Decade of Science and Trillions of Collisions Show the W Boson Is More Massive Than Expected – A Physicist Explains What It Means

Measuring the mass of W bosons took 10 years – and the result was not what physicists expected.

“You can do it quickly, you can do it cheaply, or you can do it right. We did it right.” These were some of David Toback opening remarks when the leader of Fermilab’s Collider Detector unveiled the results of a decade-long experiment to measure the mass of a particle known as the W boson.

I am a high energy particle physicist, and I am part of the team of hundreds of scientists that built and ran the Collider Detector at Fermilab in Illinois – known as CDF.

After trillions of collisions and years of data collection and number crunching, the CDF team found that the W boson has slightly more mass than expected. Though the discrepancy is tiny, the results, described in a paper published in the journal Science on April 7, 2022, have electrified the particle physics world. If the measurement is indeed correct, it is yet another strong signal that there are missing pieces to the physics puzzle of how the universe works.

The Standard Model of particle physics describes the particles that make up the mass and forces of the universe. MissMJ/WikimediaCommons The Standard Model of particle physics describes the particles that make up the mass and forces of the universe. Credit: MissMJ/WikimediaCommons

A particle that carries the weak force

The Standard Model of particle physics is science’s current best framework for the basic laws of the universe and describes three basic forces: the electromagnetic force, the weak force, and the strong force.

Atomic nuclei are held together by the strong force. However, certain nuclei are unstable and undergo radioactive decay, slowly releasing energy by particle emission. This process is driven by the weak force, and scientists have been trying to figure out why and how atoms decay since the early 1900s.

According to the Standard Model, forces are transmitted by particles. In the 1960s, a series of theoretical and experimental breakthroughs proposed that the weak force is transmitted by particles called W and Z bosons. It also postulated that a third particle, the Higgs boson, is what gives all other particles – including W and Z bosons – mass.

Since the advent of the Standard Model in the 1960s, scientists have been working their way down the list of predicted yet undiscovered particles and measuring their properties. In 1983, two experiments at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, captured the first evidence of the existence of the W boson. It appeared to have the mass of roughly a medium-sized atom such as bromine.

By the 2000s, there was just one piece missing to complete the Standard Model and tie everything together: the Higgs boson. I helped search for the Higgs boson on three successive experiments, and at last we discovered it in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

The Standard Model was complete, and all the measurements we made hung together beautifully with the predictions.

The Collider Detector at Fermilab collected data from trillions of collisions that produced millions of W bosons. Credit: Bodhita/WikimediaCommons, CC BY-SA

Measuring W bosons

It’s a lot of fun to smash particles together at really high energies to test the Standard Model. These collisions produce heavier particles for a brief period of time before decaying back into lighter particles. To analyze the properties and interactions of the particles created in these collisions, physicists employ massive and extremely sensitive detectors at facilities such as Fermilab and CERN.

In CDF, W bosons are produced about one out of every 10 million times when a proton and an antiproton collide. Antiprotons are the antimatter version of protons, with exactly the same mass but opposite charge. Protons are made of smaller fundamental particles called quarks, and antiprotons are made of antiquarks. It is the collision between quarks and antiquarks that create W bosons. W bosons decay so fast that they are impossible to measure directly. So physicists track the energy produced from their decay to measure the mass of W bosons.

In the 40 years since scientists first detected evidence of the W boson, successive experiments have attained ever more precise measurements of its mass. But it is only since the measurement of the Higgs boson – since it gives mass to all other particles – that researchers could check the measured mass of W bosons against the mass predicted by the Standard Model. The prediction and the experiments always matched up – until now.

The new measurement of the W boson (red circle) is much farther from the mass predicted by the Standard Model (purple line) and also greater than the preliminary measurement from the experiment. Credit: CDF Collaboration via Science Magazine, CC BY

Unexpectedly heavy

Fermilab’s CDF detector is excellent at accurately measuring W bosons. Between 2001 and 2011, the accelerator smashed protons and antiprotons trillions of times, creating millions of W bosons and collecting as much data as possible from each collision.

In 2012, the Fermilab team reported preliminary results based on a subset of the data. We discovered that the mass was somewhat off, but close to the prediction. The researchers then laboriously analyzed the entire data set for a decade. Numerous internal cross-checks were performed, as well as years of computer simulations. Nobody could see any results until the entire calculation was completed to avoid bias sneaking into the analysis.

When the physics world finally saw the result on April 7, 2022, we were all surprised. Physicists measure elementary particle masses in units of millions of electron volts – shortened to MeV. The W boson’s mass came out to be 80,433 MeV – 70 MeV higher than what the Standard Model predicts it should be. This may seem like a tiny excess, but the measurement is accurate to within 9 MeV. This is a deviation of nearly eight times the margin of error. When my colleagues and I saw the result, our reaction was a resounding “wow!”

The fact that the measured mass of the W boson differs from the anticipated mass in the Standard Model could indicate one of three things. Either the math is incorrect, the measurement is incorrect, or something is missing from the Standard Model.

What this means for the Standard Model

The fact that the measured mass of the W boson doesn’t match the predicted mass within the Standard Model could mean three things. Either the math is wrong, the measurement is wrong or there is something missing from the Standard Model.

First, the math. In order to calculate the W boson’s mass, physicists use the mass of the Higgs boson. CERN experiments have allowed physicists to measure the Higgs boson mass to within a quarter-percent. Additionally, theoretical physicists have been working on the W boson mass calculations for decades. While the math is sophisticated, the prediction is solid and not likely to change.

The next possibility is a flaw in the experiment or analysis. Physicists all over the world are already reviewing the result to try to poke holes in it. Additionally, future experiments at CERN may eventually achieve a more precise result that will either confirm or refute the Fermilab mass. But in my opinion, the experiment is as good a measurement as is currently possible.

That leaves the last option: There are unexplained particles or forces causing the upward shift in the W boson’s mass. Even before this measurement, some theorists had proposed potential new particles or forces that would result in the observed deviation. In the coming months and years, I expect a raft of new papers seeking to explain the puzzling mass of W bosons.

As a particle physicist, I am confident in saying that there must be more physics waiting to be discovered beyond the Standard Model. If this new result holds up, it will be the latest in a series of findings showing that the Standard Model and real-world measurements often don’t quite match. It is these mysteries that give physicists new clues and new reasons to keep searching for a fuller understanding of matter, energy, space, and time.

Written by John Conway, Professor of Physics, University of California, Davis.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

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  • xABBAAA

    … a heavy w Boson, it can mean only more fun…

  • Eric Blenheim

    A very precise cosmic mind is surely immediately behind the manifestation of all such ‘particles’ or wave forms in this dimension.

    • Lance Wedor

      Or not…
      Interesting conjecture, but for me, extraordinary assertions require extraordinary evidence. The notion of a cosmic mind underpinning all in this dimension seems puerile. B Brecht observed that the aim of science is not to open a door to infinite wisdom but to limit infinite error. The very idea of some supreme mind finely tuning existence seems to invite a wayward dynamic.

      • Eric Blenheim

        Having done yoga for a number of years, I have directly observed and experienced certain multidimensional phenomena that confirm only that structured levels of substance and being exist beyond the purview of the gross material senses.

        Various differing schools of thought may consider some of these levels to be either spiritual material or subtle physical material. The physical material scientist however will forever put forward the view that such phenomena are purely the product of the imagination and that therefore they cannot be considered as objective scientifically established phenomena unless a machine can record them or measure them.

        Likely one day, more advanced scientific instruments will be designed that can measure more exotic or subtle forms of matter that form the substance of different subtle material dimensions and the structures they form.

        One cannot forever deny realities that are denied by mainstream science purely because no suitable technology has yet been created to evidence them, even some prominent scientists have expressed that view in saying that God surely exists as random chance alone cannot possibly account for what they have seen.

        The consciousness of the soul itself is the finest instrument in certain areas of investigation. A scientific machine is not alive, whereas the soul is alive and can perceive the actual living qualities of things and more subtle realms of existence. The gross material scientist is not yet sufficiently advanced enough even to admit the existence of the soul, the timelessly-existing living consciousness itself in every being that can leave the body and exist independently of any brain or body.

        The enormous subtlety, complexity, and surely organized structure of differing levels of substance beyond this one is simply amazing and amply testifies to the existence of a great mind behind the manifestation and organization of each level of being.

        While on the one hand a physical material scientist may consider that he may be able to ratchet his way up in understanding simply with lifeless scientific instruments, one might also consider that the scope of function or measurement of any scientific instrument is somewhat limited by the intellect and design of the inventor, you largely get to see what you program to be able to look for within certain operational parameters when using such instruments, but every soul itself is transcendent to the brain and any present day machine or instrument on this planet, and experiences and knows more in certain areas than any present day scientific instrument can.

  • FB36

    I think discrepancies found for W-bosons & Muons maybe because SM is definitely still missing an elementary particle!

    IMHO, Black Holes should/must be made of particles (just like Neutron Stars)!
    & there is only 1 possible particle they could be made of (which was theorized decades ago): Planckion (Planck Particle)!
    (Imagine a particle that already has minimum possible size (Planck length) & maximum possible mass/density (Planck mass)! & so it cannot be crushed or compressed any further (towards a singularity)!)
    & so, SM should/must have Planckion as a currently missing member!
    How to prove that?:
    Realize that, if Planckion really is a member of SM then results of many theoretical calculations (involving/considering FULL set of SM particles) would change!
    Then, it just need to be checked, if old calculations were closer to all experimental results/measurements or the new ones!?

    I am not suggesting Planckions as a DM candidate, since they are unstable individually for sure (because of Hawking Radiation)!
    But, I think they would be highly stable when created in massive numbers by a huge collapsing star!
    (Similar to how neutrons are highly stable when when created in massive numbers by a huge collapsing star (even though they are unstable individually)!)

    Also, I am well-aware that the idea of Planckions is not widely-known!
    (Even the Wikipedia page for “Planck Particle” seems disappeared somehow, after many years being there!)
    But maybe that is one the huge problems in whole theoretical physics community!:
    Always everybody are keep working on what everybody else are keep working on!:
    Very popular but actually long failed ideas!

  • Matthew Nord

    I have no idea what you are talking about