Just before the 2022 holiday season LHCb announced it was giving the particle physics community a highly anticipated holiday present : an updated measurement of the lepton flavor universality ratio R(K). Unfortunately when the wrapping paper was removed and the measurement revealed, the entire particle physics community let out a collective groan. It was not shiny new-physics-toy we had all hoped for, but another pair of standard-model-socks.
The particle physics community is by now very used to standard-model-socks, receiving hundreds of pairs each year from various experiments all over the world. But this time there had be reasons to hope for more. Previous measurements of R(K) from LHCb had been showing evidence of a violation one of the standard model’s predictions (lepton flavor universality), making this triumph of the standard model sting much worse than most.
R(K) is the ratio of how often a B-meson (a bound state of a b-quark) decays into final states with a kaon (a bound state of an s-quark) plus two electrons vs final states with a kaon plus two muons. In the standard model there is a (somewhat mysterious) principle called lepton flavor universality which means that muons are just heavier versions of electrons. This principle implies B-mesons decays should produce electrons and muons equally and R(K) should be one.
But previous measurements from LHCb had found R(K) to be less than one, with around 3σ of statistical evidence. Other LHCb measurements of B-mesons decays had also been showing similar hints of lepton flavor universality violation. This consistent pattern of deviations had not yet reached the significance required to claim a discovery. But it had led a good amount of physicists to become #cautiouslyexcited that there may be a new particle around, possibly interacting preferentially with muons and b-quarks, that was causing the deviation. Several hundred papers were written outlining possibilities of what particles could cause these deviations, checking whether their existence was constrained by other measurements, and suggesting additional measurements and experiments that could rule out or discover the various possibilities.
This had all led to a considerable amount of anticipation for these updated results from LHCb. They were slated to be their final word on the anomaly using their full dataset collected during LHC’s 2nd running period of 2016-2018. Unfortunately what LHCb had discovered in this latest analysis was that they had made a mistake in their previous measurements.
There were additional backgrounds in their electron signal region which had not been previously accounted for. These backgrounds came from decays of B-mesons into pions or kaons which can be mistakenly identified as electrons. Backgrounds from mis-identification are always difficult to model with simulation, and because they are also coming from decays of B-mesons they produce similar peaks in their data as the sought after signal. Both these factors combined to make it hard to spot they were missing. Without accounting for these backgrounds it made it seem like there was more electron signal being produced than expected, leading to R(K) being below one. In this latest measurement LHCb found a way to estimate these backgrounds using other parts of their data. Once they were accounted for, the measurements of R(K) no longer showed any deviations, all agreed with one within uncertainties.
It is important to mention here that data analysis in particle physics is hard. As we attempt to test the limits of the standard model we are often stretching the limits of our experimental capabilities and mistakes do happen. It is commendable that the LHCb collaboration was able to find this issue and correct the record for the rest of the community. Still, some may be a tad frustrated that the checks which were used to find these missing backgrounds were not done earlier given the high profile nature of these measurements (their previous result claimed ‘evidence’ of new physics and was published in Nature).
Though the R(K) anomaly has faded away, the related set of anomalies that were thought to be part of a coherent picture (including another leptonic branching ratio R(D) and an angular analysis of the same B meson decay in to muons) still remain for now. Though most of these additional anomalies involve significantly larger uncertainties on the Standard Model predictions than R(K) did, and are therefore less ‘clean’ indications of new physics.
Besides these ‘flavor anomalies’ other hints of new physics remain, including measurements of the muon’s magnetic moment, the measured mass of the W boson and others. Though certainly none of these are slam dunk, as they each causes for skepticism.
So as we begin 2023, with a great deal of fresh LHC data expected to be delivered, particle physicists once again begin our seemingly Sisyphean task : to find evidence physics beyond the standard model. We know its out there, but nature is under no obligation to make it easy for us.
Paper: Test of lepton universality in b→sℓ+ℓ− decays (arXiv link)
Authors: LHCb Collaboration
Excellent twitter thread summarizing the history of the R(K) saga
A related, still discrepant, flavor anomaly from LHCb
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