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Physics + MathPhysics & Math

What the Heck is a Pentaquark?

An unexpected discovery might be the first detection of a new particle called a pentaquark.

ByDon LincolnThe Nature of RealityThe Nature of Reality
What the Heck is a Pentaquark?

What do you get when you combine four quarks and an antiquark?

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If you think this sounds like the opening of a particle physicists’ riddle, you aren’t too far off. Hypothetically, this particular quark combo makes a “pentaquark.” Despite decades of searching, physicists haven’t been able to actually find a pentaquark. Now, though, there’s a hint that two pentaquarks have unexpectedly come out of hiding.

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Illustration of a possible layout of the quarks in a pentaquark particle such as those discovered at LHCb. © CERN

If the new result holds up—a big if—the unexpected discovery would add a new species of particle to the standard model’s menagerie. But the measurements , recently announced by the team collaborating on the

LHCb experiment , are truly perplexing. While the results were submitted for publication a couple of days ago, the first discussion in a large public conference occurred on July 23 at the 2015 meeting of the high energy physics division of the European Physical Society, where I had the opportunity to hear Sheldon Stone, who led the analysis, talk about the result. It’s certainly a topic of both excited and skeptical discussion here at the conference.

Pentaquarks were first predicted in 1964 by Murray Gell-man and George Zweig in the separate and competing papers in which they first hypothesized the existence of quarks. (Gell-man’s name “quark” has stood the test of time, while Zweig independently proposed the now-defunct “aces.”) Physicists have looked for pentaquarks for a long time, unsuccessfully. We don’t know why there has been no evidence for their existence for so long. Maybe they don’t exist. Or maybe they do and the LHCb experiment has finally found them.

Quarks are the building blocks of protons and neutrons and, as far as we know, they are the smallest basic units of matter. Quarks combine with other quarks according to the rules of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), which is the theory describing the behavior of the strong nuclear force, which is the strongest of the known subatomic forces. Pair a quark with an antiquark, and you’ve got a particle called a meson; three quarks make a baryon, like a proton or neutron. The new pentaquark—if it really is a pentaquark—seems to be made up of two up quarks, a down quark, and a charm quark/antiquark pair.

The announcement is the latest chapter in a somewhat dubious story of now-you-see-now-you-don’t discovery. In 2002, scientists in Japan announced the discovery of a particle with a mass about 1.5 times that of a proton. They called it the Θ + , and argued that it was a kind of pentaquark. This announcement triggered a flurry of searches by other groups of experimenters, with some groups confirming the Θ + and finding other particles that were claimed to be different pentaquark candidates, while other researchers found no evidence for any new particles at all. The excitement continued for three years until 2005, when the community decided that the original announcement was wrong. The death knell of the Θ+ sounded when a group of scientists at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (TJNAF) in Newport News, Virginia, repeated the initial Japanese measurement with far more data. The TJNAF scientists saw no evidence for the existence of the Θ + , and the community consigned it to the dustbin of history as one of many particle “discoveries” that ultimately didn’t pan out.

The particles recently announced by the LHCb experiment aren’t the Θ+. Instead, the new particles have a mass of about 4.5 times that of the proton. The LHCb team wasn’t actually searching for pentaquarks when they made their measurements. Instead, they were studying how a particle called the Λ b baryon decays. To their surprise, they found that a fraction of the time, some of the “daughter” particles left behind by the decay seemed to be coming from an unknown parent particle. So what the heck was it?


The LHCb team was unable to reconcile their measurements with any of the known or predicted particles of the Standard Model. They seemed to need something new. After testing out lots of hypotheses, they considered the discredited pentaquarks. (Remember that pentaquarks are a prediction of the theory of QCD, they’ve just never been seen before.) One pentaquark wasn’t enough to fit their data, but two did the trick. When they included two new pentaquark particles in their calculations, the data and theory agreed.

The two new particles have an unusual amount of quantum mechanical spin, specifically 3/2 and 5/2. (Protons, neutrons and electrons are all spin ½.) Like all particles that are bound by the strong nuclear force and decay under its rules, they live for a very short time, specifically about 10 -23 seconds.

Given the checkered history of previous pentaquark searches, physicists are naturally skeptical. So it is worth dissecting the claim. The first question is whether scientists are confident that they’ve discovered some kind of new particle. Here, the claim is on firmer ground: the two detections have significance of nine and 12 standard deviations respectively. (The usual standard in particle physics to claim the discovery of a phenomenon is five standard deviations, and larger numbers mean more certainty. Nine and 12 are very strong numbers.)

It’s less certain whether the new particles are really pentaquarks. There are good reasons for skepticism: For one thing, the makeup of the new pentaquarks—two ups, a down, and a charm quark/antiquark pair—seems improbable. It should be easier to make a pentaquark consisting of only up and down quarks, which are lighter than charm quarks, and such a particle has never been discovered. Discovering a charm pentaquark first feels like going fishing and pulling up two sharks and no trout. A second possibility is that the new discovery is actually a sort of “molecule”: a particle called a J/ψ attached to a proton, roughly similar to how a deuteron is a proton and neutron bound together. Both have the same quark content, but only “five things in a bag” qualifies as a “real” pentaquark.

When I caught up with Sheldon Stone during the coffee break after his talk at the conference, he speculated that the higher mass of the charm quarks could make the resulting pentaquark more stable or perhaps somehow makes this sort of pentaquark more likely to form. He cautioned, however, that this was speculation on his part and more work would be required to substantiate these ideas.

Theoretical physicists are likewise skeptical. Frank Wilczek, professor of physics at MIT and winner of the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to the development of the theory of QCD was excited about the possibility of the existence of the pentaquark , but cautious about the measurement.

So what will it take for the community to embrace this exciting development? Well, as Carl Sagan is famous for noting, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is also true that independent confirmation is key. Accordingly, other LHC experiments will try to repeat the analysis approach reported by the LHCb collaboration in order to see if their measurement can be replicated. In addition, theorists will try to see if they can find a mechanism within QCD that will explain why pentaquarks containing charm quarks are more likely to form than ones with lighter quarks.

Now, taking a more personal perspective, what do I think? First, Sheldon Stone made a persuasive and thorough case at his talk. I think the LHCb experiment is a world class collaboration, with some of the finest minds on the planet and ample experience in the subject matter. Further, they are well aware of the history of the pentaquark and would not lightly propose this hypothesis without adequate care. However, I am very cautious of claims of this nature, especially without confirmation from other experiments. I think the only sensible approach is to view the claim charitably, but critically. Taking a phrase from President Ronald Reagan, I “trust, but verify.” I think the next few months will be very interesting.

Go Deeper
Author’s picks for further reading

arXiv: Observation of J/ψp resonances consistent with pentaquark states in Λ 0 b →J/ψK p decays
Read a pre-print of the scientific paper describing the pentaquark observation.

Inside Science: Party of Five! Physicists Discover Long-Sought ‘Pentaquark’ In Stroke of Luck
Science writer Michael Greshko on the “accidental” discovery of the pentaquark.

Nature: Forsaken pentaquark particle spotted at CERN
Nature News reports on the latest chapter in the pentaquark story.

This project/research was supported by grant number FQXi-RFP-1822 from the Foundational Questions Institute and Fetzer Franklin Fund, a donor-advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.