Preliminary results from two experiments suggest that something could be wrong with the basic way that physicists think the universe works, a prospect that has the field of particle physics both baffled and thrilled.
Tiny particles called muons are not quite doing what is expected of them in two long-running experiments in the US and Europe. The confounding results — if proven right — reveal major problems with the rulebook that physicists use to describe and understand how the universe works at the subatomic level.
“We think we might be swimming in a sea of background particles all the time that just haven’t been directly discovered,” Chris Polly, a scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, told a news conference.
Photo: Fermilab via AP
“There might be monsters we haven’t yet imagined that are emerging from the vacuum interacting with our muons and this gives us a window into seeing them,” Polly added.
The rulebook, called the Standard Model, was developed about 50 years ago.
Experiments performed over decades affirmed over and again that its descriptions of the particles and the forces that make up and govern the universe were pretty much on the mark — until now.
On Wednesday, Fermilab announced the results of 8.2 billion races along a track outside Chicago that, while ho-hum to most people, have physicists astir: The muons’ magnetic fields do not seem to be what the Standard Model says they should be.
The point, Johns Hopkins University theoretical physicist David Kaplan said, is to pull apart particles and find out if there is “something funny going on” with both the particles and the seemingly empty space between them.
The muon is the heavier cousin to the electron that orbits an atom’s center.
“Since the very beginning it was making physicists scratch their heads,” said Graziano Venanzoni, who is one of the top scientists on the Fermilab experiment, called Muon g-2.
The experiment sends muons around a magnetized track that keeps the particles in existence long enough for researchers to get a closer look at them.
Preliminary results suggest that the magnetic “spin” of the muons is 0.1 percent off what the Standard Model predicts.
That may not sound like much, but to particle physicists, it is huge — more than enough to upend current understanding.
Researchers need another year or two to finish analyzing the results.
Separately, at the world’s largest atom smasher at the European Center for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider, physicists have been crashing protons against each other to see what happens afterward.
One experiment measures what happens when particles called beauty or bottom quarks collide.
The Standard Model predicts that these beauty quark crashes should result in equal numbers of electrons and muons, but that is not what happened.
Researchers pored over the data from a few thousand crashes and found a 15 percent difference, with significantly more electrons than muons, experiment researcher Sheldon Stone said.
Neither experiment is being called an official discovery yet because there is still a tiny chance that the results are statistical quirks.
If the results do hold, they would upend “every other calculation made” in the world of particle physics, Kaplan said.
“This is not a fudge factor. This is something wrong,” Kaplan said.
That something could be explained by a new particle or force.
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