Physicists tell us that the universe is controlled by just four fundamental forces. Gravity and electromagnetism operate on a scale that we can readily recognize, while the strong and weak forces act on the atomic level to keep atoms together or to break them apart.
Most of physics can be understood with these forces, but there are anomalies — hints that our understanding of nature is missing something. For this reason, some physicists suspect that there may be a mysterious fifth force, such as a force that helps explain the nature of dark matter.
And now they might have discovered it: Hungarian researchers recently spotted something strange after firing protons at a lithium-7 atom, causing a brand new super-light boson to pop out that could be a carrier of a fifth force, reports Nature.
Interestingly, the Hungarian team's research was initially overlooked until an American team led by Jonathan Feng from the University of California, Irvine, ran their own numbers on the same data which appeared to confirm the exciting find. Feng's team believes that the bizarre new boson is indeed carrying a fifth force that could rewrite the book on our understanding of existence.
The original reason for the Hungarian team's experiment was to search for a theoretical "dark photon," a proposed electromagnetic force carrier for dark matter, similar to the way that regular photons carry the electromagnetic force for normal matter. The new super-light boson does not appear to be the dark photon they were looking for, but its discovery is similarly profound.
“We are very confident about our experimental results,” said Attila Krasznahorkay of the Hungarian team. He added that the team has repeated the experiment several times and that the odds of it being a flukey result are 1 in 200 billion — so his confidence is certainly justified.
Of course, the results will have to be repeatable by independent sources before the findings can be definitively confirmed, but it's a promising discovery that could finally help theorists to better understand the vexing nature of dark matter — the mysterious substance that supposedly makes up around 80 percent of the mass in the galaxy but which can't be seen. It's a new frontier, indeed... all carried on the back of a tiny little particle.