Linkage 4/8: Exciting Bumps, Shutdown Ripples

row040711figure1In physics, there’s nothing better than an unexpected result. Wednesday, Fermilab scientists unveiled the graph at left and caused figurative rioting in the streets of the physics community, confirming months of rumors about an exciting new result from the suburban Chicago facility (You can watch video of the presentation here). It’s a big score in the final days of Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator, which is due to close later this year due to budget cuts and the ascendancy of the more powerful CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

The buzzworthy peak was the result of collision experiments where Fermilab scientists expected to see a W boson and two quarks, elementary particles that are part of the Standard Model of physics. But the experiments produced something additional, something unexpected, something unusual: a bump. Particle physicists spend their whole life chasing bumps, as Sean Carroll of Fermilab explains at his Discover Magazine blog, because they are “often a signature of a new particle that has been produced and then quickly decayed.” The anomaly could thus be a previously undiscovered particle that is not predicted by the Standard Model (apparently it is too large to be the elusive Higgs boson), forcing a re-write of the core theory of modern physics. Even if it’s not a new particle, some say an incorrect prediction like this one could mean that some of the rules of the Standard Model may need to be tweaked.

But despite the excitement, caution still reigns – as Dennis Overbye wrote in the New York Times, “The key phrase, everyone agrees, is ‘if it holds up.'” The chance that it is just a statistical anomaly is less than 1 in 1375, the researchers said. With that kind of data, biologists (whose 1 in 20 standards were lampooned effectively by the science comic xkcd this week) would already be popping champagne, but it’s not good enough for physicists – past findings of that strength have disappeared with further scrutiny. If additional experiments still being analyzed push the chance of error to 1 in a million, the true celebration will begin, and the finding could be the most important piece of new physics in decades.

Scientific Shutdown

Fortunately, that analysis will continue even in the face of a threatened government shutdown, the Fermilab website assures. But if a budget agreement isn’t reached by midnight tonight, business won’t continue as usual for many scientists, beginning with the 6,000 employees of the National Institutes of Health. As for extramural research that relies upon federal dollars, most ongoing clinical trials will be unperturbed, experts said. But Johns Hopkins researchers said that no new clinical trials will be able to start during the shutdown, and the Medical Center’s Richard Schilsky told MedPageToday that he’s concerned about obtaining experimental drugs from the National Cancer Institute.

“The biggest issue for us would be studies of investigational drugs being supplied by the National Cancer Institute,” he said in an email. “Many times we have to order drugs for each unique patient to be treated, and if NCI shuts down and can’t ship the drug, then we can’t treat the patient!”

A shutdown could also delay one of the final space shuttle flights, currently scheduled for April 29th. NASA has dealt with political forces before; the government shutdown of 1995 occurred as the Space Shuttle Atlantis was in space rendezvousing with the Russian space shuttle Mir. Other scientific agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the Environmental Protection Agency, were shuttered during that previous shutdown, ceasing activity monitoring diseases and pollution. Even if a budget is agreed upon, agencies and scientists continue to brace for cuts that could destabilize the future of research in the United States.


The use of botulinum toxin, known now as Botox has expanded since its FDA approval in 2002 from plastic surgery to cold hands, muscle spasms, and incontinence. New research finds that the drug may be useful in treating migraines, a strategy that David Song, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery, talked about on ABC7 last night.

The official twitter account of the Medical Center quietly debuted this week, please give it a follow if you want to keep up to date on everything happening on our campus.

On Wednesday, astronomer Martin Rees was awarded the 1-million-pound Templeton prize, given to “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Due to the mission of the Templeton foundation to create dialogue between science and religion, the prize has attracted some controversy, which you can read about in this very blunt interview with Rees, or in University faculty member Jerry Coyne’s editorial on the award. Or you can wait until Monday and ask Rees about it yourself, as he gives the 2011 University of Chicago Brinson Lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. See you there!

About Rob Mitchum (518 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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