10 March 2009
Physicists observe single top-quark
by Kate Melville
Physicists at the Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory have observed particle collisions that produce single top quarks. The discovery of the single top confirms important parameters of particle physics, including the total number of quarks, and has significance for the ongoing search for the Higgs boson.
Previously, top quarks had only been observed when produced by the strong nuclear force. That interaction leads to the production of pairs of top quarks. The production of single top quarks, which involves the weak nuclear force and is harder to identify experimentally, has now been observed, almost 14 years to the day of the top quark discovery in 1995.
Observing single-top production makes finding a needle in a haystack look easy. Only one in every 20 billion proton-antiproton collisions produces a single top quark. Even worse, the signal of these rare occurrences is easily mimicked by other "background" processes that occur at much higher rates.
"Observation of the single top quark production is an important milestone for the Tevatron program," said Dr. Dennis Kovar, Associate Director of the Office of Science for High Energy Physics at the U.S. Department of Energy. "Furthermore, the highly sensitive and successful analysis is an important step in the search for the Higgs."
Discovering the single top quark production presents challenges similar to the Higgs boson search in the need to extract an extremely small signal from a very large background. Advanced analysis techniques pioneered for the single top discovery are now in use for the Higgs boson search. In addition, the single top and the Higgs signals have backgrounds in common, and the single top is itself a background for the Higgs particle.
To make the single-top discovery, physicists spent years combing independently through the results of proton-antiproton collisions recorded by their experiments, respectively. Each team identified several thousand collision events that looked the way experimenters expect single top events to appear. Sophisticated statistical analysis and detailed background modeling showed that a few hundred collision events produced the real thing. On March 4, the two teams submitted their independent results to Physical Review Letters.
"I am thrilled that [our physicists] achieved this goal," said Fermilab Director Pier Oddone. "[They] have been searching for this rare process for the last fifteen years, starting before the discovery of the top quark in 1995. Investigating these subatomic processes in more detail may open a window onto physics phenomena beyond the Standard Model."