A particle-shaped technicolour dreamcoat

How appropriate for the season of death and rebirth. Lovers of mystery had been left disconsolate after Nasa confirmed that a couple of its errant spacecraft had not uncovered a new "dark energy" or "force of nature" as previously mooted. But reassuringly, within a few days, particle physicists had put up their hands to say they were investigating a teasing hint from their experiments with atom-smashers that "technicolour", a "new force of nature", might exist.

The force that is no longer with us never even got a name. It was no more than a hypothesis that would have solved an anomaly in the trajectories of two spacecraft, Pioneers 10 and 11. They were launched in the early 1970s. Then, about ten years later, researchers began to notice they were drifting ever so slightly off course. Various excited explanations were offered, one of which was that a hitherto undiscovered force was at work in the universe, pulling on the vessels. Another was that there was an unaccounted-for source of heat on the Pioneer probes.

New calculations, taking into account the heat source and the geometry of the Pioneer probes, suggest that just about the dullest answer is almost certainly the explanation: researchers in Portugal say the heat emitted from the craft does not radiate evenly, and is enough to affect their course. One of the longest-running mysteries in science has been resolved with an explanation akin to saying that Nasa forgot to turn off the probes' courtesy light.

Thankfully, we now have the technicolour force. This putative discovery was made at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. Smashing together matter and antimatter, Fermi's physicists appear to have produced a trail of particles that really ought not to be there.

The only explanation, it seems (again), is that there is a new force in play. The existence of said force was suggested about 20 years ago as a possible way to generate mass.

Technicolour makes the search for the Higgs boson, our best guess at the source of mass, entirely pointless. Such a discovery would be a physicist's dream - and would come with a guaranteed Nobel Prize.

Data hunt

At present, there is a one-in-1,000 chance that the trail of particles was just a fluke with absolutely no significance. It will be classed as a discovery only if the Fermi researchers can find enough evidence in their unexamined mountains of data to reduce the chance of coincidence to one in a million.

At the risk of putting a downer on things, it is worth noting that the sheer volume of data coming out of our particle accelerators makes false alarms far more likely than you might think.

Given any set of data, you need only look for confirmation of a few dozen theories before you will find one that fits the evidence. It doesn't make that one theory right, any more than mentioning someone's name in conversation just before they happen to call your phone makes you psychic.

But, with the Pioneer anomaly gone, let's hope this technicolour idea works out. When you've been defeated so crushingly by the mundane, any dream will do.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special