The Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment has discovered three new pentaquarks.

Peter Ginter/CERN

Exotic particles called pentaquarks may be less weird than previously thought

Four years ago, when experimenters spotted pentaquarks—exotic, short-lived particles made of five quarks—some physicists thought they had glimpsed the strong nuclear force, which binds the atomic nucleus, engaging in a bizarre new trick. New observations have now expanded the zoo of pentaquarks, but suggest a tamer explanation for their structure. The findings, from the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment (LHCb), a particle detector fed by the LHC at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, suggest pentaquarks are not bags of five quarks binding in a new way, but are more like conventional atomic nuclei.

"I'm really excited that the new data send such a clear message," says Tomasz Skwarnicki, an LHCb physicist at Syracuse University in New York who led the study. But, he notes, "It may not be the message some people had hoped for."

Pentaquarks are heavier cousins of protons and neutrons, which are also made of quarks. In ordinary matter, quarks come in two types, up and down. Atom smashers can blast four heavier types of quarks into brief existence: charm, strange, top, and bottom. Quarks cling to one another through the strong force so mightily they cannot be isolated. Instead, they are almost always found in groups of three in particles known as baryons—including the proton and neutron—or in pairs called mesons, which consist of a quark and an antimatter quark.

But for decades, some theorists have hypothesized the existence of larger bundles of quarks. In recent years, experimenters have found evidence for four-quark particles, or tetraquarks. Then, in 2015, LHCb reported signs of two pentaquarks.

Some theorists argue that the new particles are bags of four and five quarks, bound together through the exchange of quantum particles called gluons, adding a new wrinkle to the often intractable theory of the strong force. Others argue they're more like an atomic nucleus. In this "molecular" picture a pentaquark is a three-quark baryon stuck to a two-quark meson the same way that protons and neutrons bind in a nucleus—by exchanging short-lived pi mesons.

LHCb's new pentaquarks, reported today in Physical Review Letters (PRL), bolster the molecular picture. In 2015, LHCb researchers reported a pentaquark with a mass of 4450 megaelectron volts (MeV), 4.74 times the mass of the proton. With nine times more data, they now find in that mass range two nearly overlapping but separate pentaquarks with masses of 4440 MeV and 4457 MeV. They also find a lighter pentaquark at 4312 MeV. Each contains the same set of quarks: charm, anticharm, two ups, and a down. (Previous hints of a pentaquark at 4380 MeV have faded.)

Pack your bags

Quarks, usually found in trios or pairs, come in six flavors and three colors, akin to electric charge. New pentaquarks may resemble molecules rather than bags of individual quarks.

“Bag of quarks” pentaquark “Molecule” pentaquark c d d c u u u u c c c Quark Antiquark Gluon Flavors Particles Up (u)Down (d)Charm (c) Baryon Meson
V. ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE

The lightest pentaquark has a mass just below the sum of a particular baryon and meson that together contain the correct quark ingredients. The heavier pentaquarks have masses just below the sum of the same baryon and a related meson with extra internal energy. That suggests each pentaquark is just a baryon bound to a meson, with a tiny bit of mass taken up in binding energy. "This is a no-brainer explanation," says Marek Karliner, a theorist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

The molecular picture also helps explain why the pentaquarks, although fleeting, appear to be more stable than expected, Karliner says. That's because packaging the charm quark in the baryon and anticharm quark in the meson separates them, keeping them from annihilating each other.

Other theorists rushed to a similar conclusion when LHCb researchers discussed their results at a conference in La Thuile, Italy, in March. For example, within a day, Li-Sheng Geng, a theorist at Beihang University in Beijing, and colleagues posted a paper, in press at PRL, that uses the molecular picture to predict the existence of four more pentaquarks that should be within LHCb's reach.

But the bag-of-quarks picture is not dead. Pentaquarks should occasionally form when protons are bombarded with gamma ray photons, as physicists at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, are trying to do. But they have yet to spot any pentaquarks. That undermines the molecular picture because it predicts higher rates for such photoproduction than the bag-of-quarks model does, says Ahmed Ali, a theorist at DESY, the German accelerator laboratory in Hamburg. "They are already almost excluding the molecular interpretation," he says. Others say it's too early to draw such conclusions.

The structure of pentaquarks isn't necessarily an either/or proposition, notes Feng-Kun Guo, a theorist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Quantum mechanics allows a tiny object to be both a particle and a wave, or to be in two places at once. Similarly, a pentaquark could have both structures simultaneously. “It’s just a question of which one is dominant,” Guo says.

Regardless of the binding mechanism, the new pentaquarks are exciting because they suggest the existence of a whole new family of such particles, Karliner says. “It’s like a whole new periodic table.”

*Correction, 6 June, 4 p.m.: The story has been updated to reflect that although new data weaken the case for a pentaquark with a mass of 4380 megaelectronvolts, they do not rule it out.