At around 5:30 NST, a wave of excitement spread across the international community of particle physicists. Then the American Fermilab Institute, the famous particle institute in Chicago, announced that it had exposed muons – the heavy variants of electrons – to a strong magnetic field. When the particles began spinning and wobbling like a spinning top on a table, they did so in an unambiguous way, slightly different from the best theoretical predictions. The most likely explanation? Impact of an unknown force from nature or a new fundamental particle.
Thus analogy can cause a real development of natural science. “I literally danced in the excitement room,” says particle physicist Tristan de Barre of the Dutch Particle Institute Nikhef, who was not involved in the experiment herself. Along with his wife – who is also a particle physicist – he followed the live broadcast of the advertisement with beer and pizza. Thankfully, it was a great result. We have been waiting for this for twenty years.
The announcement comes two weeks after another important news from the particle physicist. At the time, researchers from the European Particle Laboratory CERN also shared an abnormal behavior in muons, although this implies a different behavior.
“It is no coincidence that this happens twice in muons,” says de Bry. Behind the scenes, the same force or the same particle can pull strings. “But the honest answer is, we don’t know yet.”
The new findings are important because they mean that the laws describing the behavior of our physical reality at the highest level may be different from thought.
A cup of coffee or a T-shirt
This has to do with the behavior of particles, the building blocks of everything from soles to whole galaxies. For decades, physicists combined all known particles and their interactions with what is called the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which fits a cup of coffee or a T-shirt. At the same time, physicists know that there must be more than this standard model. For example, gravity, which attaches us to the Earth and keeps the Earth in orbit around the Sun, is still not understood in the model.
This is why people have been passionately looking at the Fermilab result for years. Physicists did actually see the deviation from the model in another experiment in 2001, but the basic statistic wasn’t strong enough at the time. The hope was that more measurements would put the discovery on solid ground. This turned out to be the case on a Wednesday afternoon.
One in 40 thousand
The probability that the reported deviation from the Standard Model is nothing more than a statistical mirage has decreased to approximately 1 in 40K after the most recent result. This means that the result is also stronger than what was reported by European colleagues two weeks ago. In their experience, this chance was 1 in 1000.
Both results fall short of the gold standard that particle physicists use to be able to talk about a discovery. Then that opportunity should drop to 1 in 3.5 million. “It’s only a matter of time,” says de Bry. In the current analysis, they analyzed only 6 percent of the measurement data. So there is still enough in the pipeline to overcome that last hurdle.
By the way, there is still a pressing issue hanging on the market. Predicting the rotation and rotation of a muon follows a long and complicated mathematical process. “Whether there is something wrong with this: this is a question that will be asked a lot in the coming years,” says de Barre.
Despite this, the Standard Model – and the accompanying understanding of the physical reality we live in – appears to be showing increasingly confirmed cracks. We have to wait for whoever makes the last installment.
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