As a physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Cern, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “When will you find something?” Resisting the temptation to answer sarcastically: and a whole bunch of new composite particles? ”I realize that the reason the question is asked so often comes down to how we’ve portrayed advances in particle physics to the wider world.

We often talk about progress in discovering new particles, and this is often the case. Studying a new, very heavy particle helps us see the basic physical processes – often without annoying background noise. This makes it easy to explain the value of the discovery to the public and politicians.

Recently, however, a series of accurate measurements of already known, standard swamp particles and processes have threatened to shake up physics. And with the LHC getting ready for work at higher energy and intensity more than ever, it is time to start discussing the consequences widely.

In fact, particle physics has always proceeded in two ways, one of which is new particles. The other is by performing very precise measurements that test the predictions of the theories and look for deviations from expectations.

Early evidence for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, for example, comes from the discovery of small deviations in the apparent position of stars and from the motion of Mercury in its orbit.

Three key findings

Particles obey an anti-intuitive but extremely successful theory called quantum mechanics. This theory shows that particles that are too massive to be made directly in a laboratory collision can still affect what other particles do (through something called “quantum fluctuations”). However, measuring such effects is very complex and much more difficult to explain to the public.

But recent results suggesting an inexplicable new physics outside the standard model are of this second type. In detail studies from the LHCb experiment found that a particle known as the beauty quark (quarks make up the protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus) “decays” into an electron much more often than a muon, the heavier but otherwise identical electron brother. According to the standard model, this should not happen – implying that new particles or even natural forces can affect the process.